What’s Old is New Again

In Detroit’s faded Chinatown, the Peterboro takes Asian cooking to new and delightful heights

Beware the sleeping dragon. For when she awakes the earth will shake.

The phrase about China is first said to have been uttered by either Napoleon Bonaparte or Winston Churchill. Nobody seems quite sure. But what is certain is that it applies well to our restaurant choice this month.

Peterboro, a newer spot located in the old neighborhood that used to be Detroit’s Chinatown, has been shaking some earth. Chef Brion Wong’s stunning, delicate, and intricate modernist Chinese-American dishes are of a kind we’ve not seen before around Detroit.

The food is nothing short of masterful. And it’s a great addition to the new places opening in the downtown area.

The restaurant occupies two storefronts on Peterboro, just off Cass Avenue. It is festive and cheery. The semicircular bar is ringed with heavy wood stools without backs that are made to resemble Chinese structural arches, shaped vaguely like an “H” with sides tilting inward and topped by a wider bowed seat.

The dining area is a mix of high-top tables with those same stools and regular two- and four-top tables. From the dark patterned ceiling hang light bulbs covered with bright red and gold round Chinese paper shades with tasseled tails.

Peterboro’s owners are the urban pioneers Dave Kwiatkowski and Marc Djozlija whose Detroit Optimist Society holdings include Wright & Co., Sugar House, and Café 78 at MOCAD. Peterboro’s managing partner is Charles Inchaustegui.

Peterboro is fascinating on two levels.

First, it is right in the center of the Detroit Midtown-Downtown Renaissance Zone, and joins the dozens of new restaurants that have opened. For example, Selden Standard is a few blocks away. Republic is just about 10 blocks south on Cass.

Second, what Wong is doing is a culinary renaissance and reinterpretation of Chinese-American cooking, taken to new heights. He makes Peterboro an adventure well worth the trip for the delightful, fresh, and intensely flavored dishes.

The small plate appetizers alone show Wong’s delightful combination of the traditional and the exploratory. In some, Wong effectively takes traditional and old standby Chinese dishes and spins them into a whole new world.

Consider these: Burnt soy English peas with Maldon sea salt, and seaweed salad with kombu, crispy quinoa, and pickled mushroom.

Delightful crab Rangoons with cream cheese, crab, and scallion reflect the traditional. The paper chicken is pounded thigh and breast meat cooked in parchment envelopes with ginger, scallion, and cilantro.

The sea scallop crudo appears on the plate sliced thin enough to be almost translucent, but is then dotted with dark ponzu, a broad bean paste to the side, and sprinkled with sesame seed.

A must-try also is the roast pork, cooked in hoisin sauce and Michigan honey, a marvelous interchange between sweet and the pork.

This modern, lively, and edgy place is a stone’s throw from where Chung’s used to be, one of the great ethnic dining icons of 1950s Detroit.

It would be simple to label this a rebirth of the old Chinese neighborhood, but the fact is that the last Chinese families left it years ago and the area has sat mostly abandoned.

In its heyday, thousands of Detroiters would flock here to eat at Chung’s on Cass, a family favorite back then for adventurous exotic food that usually included those wonderful —some would say awful — faux-Chinese dishes such as chop suey, egg foo young, and moo goo gai pan.

Owner Harry Chung was a character known throughout the city. He presided over his place, a long black cigar forever in his mouth, and extra handfuls of them in his breast pocket to hand out as gifts to male clients. Harry’s personality earned him the nickname “The Mayor of Chinatown.”

The Chungs and the Chins were two of the best-known and most influential families in Chinatown.

The Chins ran the large Chinese grocery store in the little neighborhood, which was the second Chinatown in Detroit. The first had been around Third and Michigan avenues where the MGM Grand Detroit casino now stands.

It was knocked down and cleared by the city as part of the construction of the Lodge freeway.

The city moved the Chinese businesses to Peterboro and Cass. But within a few years in the 1970s, the Chinese were following everybody else out of Detroit and scattered into the suburbs.

One of the Chins was Mon Chin, a native Chinese woman, who was a bartered bride and widowed at a young age. She started her business in Troy, adding her husband’s name Lau to it. Thus was born the famous Mon Jin Lau restaurant, run for many years by her son Marshall Chin, and now her grandsons Bryan and Brandon.

The old Chinatown still whispers its past through fading Chinese characters in old signage on closed-up buildings, and the occasional street markers.

A mural in the area has been kept up as a sad reminder of one of the most notorious incidents of the 1980s: the murder of Vincent Chin.

Thinking he was Japanese, two autoworkers leaving a Highland Park nightclub fatally beat Chin, who was also at the club for his bachelor party. The men pleaded guilty to manslaughter, but they never served time. Protests and outrage followed in the Chinese community and with civil rights groups.

Over the next 20-plus years that followed, as the Peterboro and Cass community slowly evaporated, so did the interest in the old-style Chinese restaurants along with its dated style of food.

In recent history, Thai food — with its hot spices, coconut milk, and peanut flavors — began swallowing Chinese restaurants’ turf. There was also Vietnamese, with their French colonial flourishes and emphasis on freshness with plenty of bean sprouts, basil, and cilantro.

No longer could Chinese food claim to be solely representative of Asian food. So it began to fade.

Today, there’s renewed excitement for places like Peterboro and chefs such as Wong, with his delightful dishes as Hong Kong-style pan-fried noodles; his mapo tofu with shiitake mushroom, Szechuan numbing spices, and chili oil; or almond boneless chicken done in beer batter with brown gravy and spiced Marcona almonds.

One reason Mon Jin Lau thrives today is that its owners knew that to stand still with the same menu year to year would be fatal. Mon Jin Lau developed what it uniquely called NuAsian, some would say pan-Asian, adopting the culinary flourishes of its Asian cousins.

Now comes a new picture with Peterboro. There is something poetic and appealing in the picture of a young Chinese-American chef sending delicious new and familiar scents wafting out to the surrounding shuttered buildings and empty streets, their faded Chinese characters now peeling. It’s where people of his own ancestry once lived and worked, but then moved on.

In that sense, it can be said that Peterboro brings great honor to its ancestors.

420 Peterboro St., Detroit; 313-833-1111. D daily.

Christopher Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic. Email: editorial@hour-media.com