The Peterboro has Detroit’s newest Chinese-American comfort food

Chinatown delights

Egg custard tart
Egg custard tart Photo by Scott Spellman

The Peterboro

420 Peterboro St. 313-833-1111 4 p.m.-midnight Sunday-Thursday; 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday $2.95-$17.95

View 25 photos from the Peterboro here

We first stepped foot on the block that would one day house the Peterboro almost two years ago, when we set out to explore the hidden history of Detroit's long-gone Chinatown. Our first impression of this intersection of Cass and Peterboro, still clinging to the final vestiges of the abandoned immigrant district last seen with Chung's more than a decade ago, had us skeptical about its renewal.

And yet we're reminded with this restaurant's opening in March that all that is old can become new again. While the likes of Chung's and other old-school Cantonese eateries have flocked to the burbs over the past several years, we're finding a growing number of Asian-inspired kitchens making strides to fill in the gap. It's this recognition that we need more diversity in the city's dining scene that has us most excited.

Peterboro chef de cuisine Brion Wong, a New York native, was raised in a Chinese-American household. He came to Detroit to help the kitchen at Antietam through a rocky start, leaving after less than a year. He was subsequently tapped by restauranteurs David Kwiatkowski and Marc Djozlija (of the Detroit Optimist Society restaurant group, made up of Kwiatkowski's Sugar House and Honest John's, and the partners' Wright & Co. and Café 78; the Peterboro is also run by managing partner Charles Inchaustegui). Wong was asked to dream up the concept for the Peterboro. What he accomplishes is bringing back one of the most popular ethnic cuisines in the country to a city that is virtually a Chinese food desert.

The space (a former market) transports us into an intimate gathering place. The interior is dimly lit, with red paper lanterns, black tin ceiling, exposed brick walls, and an oversized painting of a tiger. The dining room offers backless seating on wood stools and either two-top or long, communal tables.

The differences between the Peterboro and most local Chinese fare are evident on every level of the menu (which we're told is soon to change). Dishes are exquisitely plated, entrees are bursting with unique spices, and old standards are given a modern touch. At the same time, they don't purport to be strictly "authentic." What we see is a cultural collision, where Wong's Chinese heritage is met with his New York upbringing, and his expertise in fine European dining. It's a tradition popularized by culinary giants like Los Angeles' chef Roy Choi, whose influences in Southern California Asian and Latin food brought us the now ubiquitous Korean taco.

The paper menu, laid out as a sort of nod to the many takeout eateries where you order by the number, is divided up with an equal number of small plates and family-style entrees. It then goes on to late night offerings, a small house cocktail list, plus a variety of sherries, sakes, beers, and wines. On a recent visit, we were also told we could order some of the cocktails made at Sugar House (so long as they have the ingredients).

We started off with a bountiful serving of salt-and-pepper shrimp poached in a court bouillon, dredged in starch, and flash fried to a crisp. They're served head on, covered in secret spices, and accompanied by a jalapeno confit. They're reminiscent of the many variations of dried shrimp that can be found in coastal regions across the globe where the crustaceans are plentiful: rich in umami flavor, crunchy, salty, and totally addictive. Next up, an artfully arranged plate of sliced scallop crudo that floats in a bath of ponzu, with a spicy broad-bean paste, and toasted sesame. We slurped the delicate pieces right up and were instantly delighted. For a flavorful veggie starter, the mushroom salad, made with an aromatic yuzu vinaigrette, is also highly recommended. For a bit of nostalgia, the mom's roast pork, served in a tiny cast iron dish, does the trick. Though a tad chewy, the touch of hoisin sauce, Mei Kuei Chiu cooking wine, and Michigan honey gives the pork a deliciously sweet glaze.

Among the larger plates suitable for sharing, the perfectly crispy Hong Kong-style pan fried noodles pair seamlessly with a serving of wok-fried market vegetables that are nice and garlicky, and prepared with a fermented black bean sauce. The fatty cumin lamb ribs, soy braised and coated in five-spice powder, had our dining partner reaching for second helpings. As for the quintessential regional staple, Almond Boneless Chicken — normally a hunk of white chicken breast that's heavily battered, fried, and smothered in brown gravy — Wong has reimagined it. He takes both white and dark meat, braises it, shreds it up, then gels it together with gravy, before it's beer battered, and accompanied with Marcona almonds. The result is a juicy, tender, flavorful take on the otherwise bland staple.

We did find that same numbing sensation on the late night menu (served after 10 p.m.) from the Szechuan wontons. There's definitely some heat to this vegetarian snack, but not sweat-on-your-brows hot. Instead, it tingles the senses in a unique way. For the drinking crowd looking for a quick munchie, the cheeseburger spring roll ($2.95 apiece), served with lettuce, tomato, onion, and a spicy dipping sauce, is an unapologetically gimmicky snack that's just fun (and tasty) to throw into the mix.

Top off dinner with a sugar egg puff (a Chinese doughnut made with osamanthus sugar and crème anglaise), or the house favorite, a Hong Kong-style egg custard tart with candied orange, and your meal is complete.

The timing of the Peterboro's opening is interesting. Not only will the new arena district result in thousands of hungry visitors wandering the surrounding neighborhood, but it also comes at a time when we're seeing more restaurateurs looking to introduce Detroiters to a wider range of Asian-inspired cuisine. We say the more the merrier, and applaud this eatery for its fun, inviting approach to Chinese food, which has long been established as an all-American classic.

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