Although this mom-and-pop place has been around for three years, Washington's fiercest food bloggers only recently put it on the map, so to speak. What has them waxing rhapsodic are the specialties you won't find on the restaurant's paper takeout menu of westernized Chinese fare.
In fact, chef Chun Keung Li and his wife, Mei, are willing to make just about any traditional Cantonese and Sichuan food on request and will even incorporate rare ingredients their patrons bring in. They are grateful to those who share news about Grace Garden; some customers have presented the couple with photos of dishes that dot a long wall in the restaurant.
"I don't want to limit my customers to a fixed menu. Sometimes it takes a few tries to come up with a dish we all like or agree on," Li said last week, speaking through an interpreter. He has been a chef for more than 30 years and says it has always been his wish to promote traditional Chinese food.
There's no need to look further than the menu posted at www.gracegardenchinese.com, from which about 70 percent of the clientele orders. Some prices are relatively high for the restaurant's location and decor, but they reflect its expert care. The portions provide more than enough for two.
At the top of many bloggers' lists, and ours, are Li's fish noodles ($20.95). He relayed that this is an ancient dish from the city of Chiu Chou that he prepares with "very fresh fish" that he buys, fillets and grinds. The resulting puree is piped into hot broth, creating supple strands that are tossed with Chinese sausage, dry radish, cilantro and scallions.
The slices of braised pork belly, paired with preserved mustard cabbage ($12.95), are meltingly tender and dangerously rich, while the eggplant in chili plum sauce ($9.95) is a spicy, wonderfully greasy adaptation of a dish originally served in Beijing. Li uses a touch of Cantonese pickled plum, red scallion and a special sauce, he says.
His version of ma po tofu ($10.95) delivers smoothness with intense heat; it's one of the best we've had around Washington. Note that the tamarind ah-sam shrimp ($13.95) comes with the heads on; we found the coating a bit sweet.
With advance notice, the smoke tea chicken ($21.95) or smoke tea duck ($27.95) can be yours, with mahogany skin, meat that is unbelievably moist and two sauces for dipping. The chef needs a day or two to smoke the whole chicken, using wu long tea leaves. He then cuts the bird into Peking duck-style pieces. The duck takes two days; it is marinated, then steamed, smoked and served boneless. Li might apologize for his preference of slightly undercooking the meat so it won't dry out. It's the traditional way, he says.
The bloggers worry: Will too many rave reviews on the Internet have an adverse affect on Grace Garden? So far, no problem.
-- Bonnie S. Benwick (Good to Go, July 23, 2008)