The Good, the Bad and the Garish
An Asian newcomer along the Potomac offers few charms beyond the view
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 29, 2009
I eat more bad food in the course of a year than you do, and I've got the notes to prove it.
Among the hundreds of restaurant meals I sample every year, only a handful are world-class. Some are near-joy. The majority are fair-to-good, just like the films I watch or the music I hear. Then there's the category of restaurants that are so brazenly bad, I tend not to tell you about them unless they're highly publicized or located somewhere significant, because why waste your time and this space?
After my initial visit to Grace's Mandarin, which has two siblings in Bowie, I was tempted to strike the Asian fusion restaurant off my to-do list. From start to finish -- from a misplaced reservation and a crowded foyer to $16 for ordinary fried rice in a setting that a friend dubbed "fake elegant" -- the evening bordered on disaster.
Two things encouraged me to make another reservation, to take another taste. Grace's Mandarin occupies real estate at a significant destination: the National Harbor complex along the water in Prince George's County. Definitely a noteworthy Zip code. Further, and despite my training, I'm an unabashed optimist. Maybe I hit the place on a bad night? Everyone makes mistakes, after all.
But not everyone makes them as often, or as glaringly, as Grace's Mandarin, I discovered during subsequent visits.
"I'm helping out a waiter here tonight," we're greeted by a good Samaritan (a.k.a. another server) in a black tunic. "Drinks?" he asks. It takes a while for him to return, which gives us an opportunity to absorb the scenery in the second-floor dining room, whose tables frame a delicious view of the Potomac River and beyond.
Try to get a seat facing a window so you won't have to contemplate the restaurant's jumbled interior. Grace's Mandarin appears to be the work of several decorators who couldn't agree on a vision but nevertheless forged ahead with their separate notions. There are gold drapes and gold pillars, giant urns here and bird cages there, plus four TVs smack in the middle of a mural at the bar to the side of the main dining room, which in turn is illuminated by enough different sconces and chandeliers to stock a lighting store. The ground floor includes a sushi bar to the right of the host stand and a long table to the left of it, plus a 33-foot-high Buddha that is visually cut off at the waist by a staircase connecting the floors.
A friend whispers his three-word review: "Asian Cheesecake Factory."
That description applies to the food as well as the setting. I play it safe the first dinner and stick with simple stuff. If you've ever wondered how anyone could screw up a chicken satay, let my appetizer at Grace's Mandarin serve as a recipe: The nuggets of chicken taste only of the grill, except when I dunk them in the accompanying peanut sauce (which makes them taste like dessert). Slippery pork dumplings are drowned in a sweet slick of oil, and an $18 shrimp roll named for the restaurant is drenched in what resembles Russian dressing.
Further investigation reveals further slapdash food. "Curry" chicken is so devoid of flavor it might as well be tofu, and it comes with tiny crepes that taste of underbaked dough. Scattered with broccoli florets and scallions, a whole fried rockfish looks impressive as it lands before us. But the entree is all show. Though the inside is moist, the fish has no savor.
The gold among the dross: The Green Dragon -- crunchy shrimp tempura and eel wrapped in a creamy band of avocado -- each morsel glistening with orange roe.
The food and the decor aren't the only obstacles here. The staff struggles to get the service right. One night, we wait endlessly for everything but the check. Where's our water? The wine? A knife for the pork chops? (Be careful what you wish for; the thinnish meat comes with a blandly sweet glaze and garnishes of pale pink tomatoes and undressed greens.)
"Are you enjoying everything?" a sunny manager asks as she breezes by, oblivious to how much is going wrong not just at our table, but at neighboring ones, too. Our conversation is punctuated by pauses as we try to read lips in this noisy space, made worse by periodic banging of buffet doors and crashes of plates and glasses. The bare granite tables are too small to accommodate the larger plates; the busboys try to solve the problem by nudging everything aside just to get the delivery job done. That results in diners extending their hands to catch what might otherwise fall overboard.
If they pool tips at Grace's Mandarin, in fairness, the customers should get a cut.
There are a few dishes that suggest an actual chef is making your food. Dewy cubes of tuna, salmon, squid and more, splashed with a zippy dressing and tamed with matchsticks of cucumber, find their way into the aptly coined Fiery Seven Spice Seafood Martini Salad. The one entree I'd be game to order again tosses tender shrimp and bright pepper strips moistened with black bean sauce. Garnished with an orchid, it's the kind of dish you'd expect to find in a neighborhood Chinese restaurant. Hot and sour soup is just what you want it to be.
The prices are not. That dreary whole rockfish is $32, while the forgettable pork chop sets a diner back $26. On a recent visit, as I looked around the room filled with young families, I couldn't help but wonder if my fellow diners were as surprised by the tabs as I was or as disappointed with the cooking.
One smiling face in the crowd stood out. But he was glued to a game on one of the TV screens the whole time. I envied him the distraction.