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P.F. Chang's bar offers zenlike respite from mall madness

The P.F. Chang’s bar. Its cocktail creations were developed to pair with the food.

Luis Santana/tbt*

The P.F. Chang’s bar. Its cocktail creations were developed to pair with the food.

If there's one place you won't find me during the holiday season, it's the mall. The shopping can get intense, but many people find themselves wading through crowds of last-minute shoppers as the holiday deadline draws near.

After an afternoon of waiting in lines and weaving through crowded department stores, a lunchtime cocktail may be just what a shopper needs. The good news is that many malls have quality dining options, most of which contain adequate bars.

Take Tampa's WestShore Plaza. Restaurants such as Maggiano's Little Italy and Mitchell's Fish Market offer quality craft cocktails, wines and beers alongside their lunch and dinner fare, making a trip to the mall considerably less dreadful. I wanted to see what a mall restaurant's bar had to offer, so I chose another WestShore favorite — P.F. Chang's — and did a little research (the kind that involves a cocktail menu and a bartender).

P.F. Chang's offers a modern take on both traditional and Americanized Chinese fare, with a menu that is fairly diverse and creative. Their approach to crafting signature cocktails seems to follow a similar philosophy as their food, with much thought put into each selection, whether it's a new spin on a classic or a completely new creation.

The layout of the restaurant is simple, with a large, open seating area taking up the majority of the space directly next to the kitchen, an outdoor patio on the side and a small bar near the entrance. A low-key ambience is the theme, with nearly all of the interior light coming in the form of hanging lamps projecting diffused orange and red hues above the dining and bar areas.

The bar is curved around a large Chinese mural and is backed by an array of wine and spirit bottles sin front of a mirrored surface. Despite a perpetually busy dining area, the bar is a decent place to relax and enjoy a cocktail, which you'll find in abundance.

The cocktail menu is crafted by the company's beverage director, Mary Melton, whose approach to cocktail creation is based on the pairing of drinks with the different styles of food offered at the restaurant. This is the basis of the restaurant's Triple Happiness happy hour menu, which combines signature cocktails with dim sum and modern twists on Asian street food. Citrusy, tart cocktails like the Coconut Lemon Sour — a blend of Pearl coconut vodka, coconut water and fresh lemon juice — are suggested as accompaniments to crispy, fried foods, while sweeter cocktails like the Yuzu Ginger Mojito — a spin on the classic involving Junmai sake, TY KU liqueur, a yuzu-based sour mix and fresh ginger juice — are paired with spicier menu items to offset the heat.

I personally enjoyed Bert's Gin & Tonic, named after the chain's ex-co-CEO Bert Vivian, who liked his G&T with the tonic on the side, and a large, single ice cube to prevent dilution of the cocktail. This particular version involves Plymouth gin with a large ice cube, a slice of lime, twisted orange peel and a couple of loose star anise pods, which add an interesting spiciness to the nose of the cocktail. A small bottle of Fever Tree tonic is served on the side, allowing you to mix the cocktail to your desired strength, a welcome consideration.

The wine list is extensive, with the company even offering its own label — Vineyard 518 — alongside the many wine and sake options. The draft beer selection is limited, with some of the more common options available, such as Blue Moon, Yuengling, Kirin Ichiban and Stella Artois. Each P.F. Chang's location also offers a local brew, and at the WestShore location, it's Cigar City Jai Alai, available in the bottle.

For a chain restaurant, I was impressed by the bar at P.F. Chang's. The atmosphere is nice, the bartenders are friendly and knowledgeable, the drinks are good and the prices aren't outrageous. For a remedy to the headaches caused by holiday shopping, P.F. Chang's isn't a bad choice. Heck, even if you manage to avoid such an ordeal, the cocktail menu is still well worth a look for its creative variations on the classics, as well as its unique house creations.

P.F. Chang's

219 WestShore Plaza, Tampa; (813) 289-8400,

The vibe: A slightly upscale but casual restaurant and bar combo with unique craft cocktails and an extensive wine list.

Food: Appetizers and soups, $2.95-$9.95; entreés, $6.75-$24.95.

Booze: Beer, $3.25-$4.25; wine; $4-$13 by the glass and $10-$100 by the bottle; liquor, $5-$12. Happy hour is 3 to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday, with discounts on select cocktails, well liquors, wines and beers.

Specialty: Many of the signature cocktails that play on classic recipes are worth trying, such as the Chinese 88 (a variation of the French 75), and the Dark & Spicy (based on the Dark & Stormy). One that doesn't appear on the current menu but that is still worth consideration is the Plum Collins, a mix of plum vodka, plum wine and fresh lemon juice. Chilled sake flights are also available (three 1-ounce pours) for $7.50, if you'd like to try something a little different.

Hours: Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

P.F. Chang's bar offers zenlike respite from mall madness 12/22/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 22, 2011 3:30am]
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