* (of four stars)
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, October 26, 2003
Given the emphasis on looks among the current crop of restaurants around Washington, I sometimes think I should cede this space to the architecture critic. From the makeover of the Roof Terrace at the Kennedy Center, to eye-catching new places like Harry's Tap Room in Arlington and the Latin-inspired Ceiba downtown, Washington-area dining rooms are shedding their dowdy image faster than you can say "Philippe Starck."
Veteran restaurateur Larry La has been a success in a basement (City Lights of China in Dupont Circle, which he sold six years ago) and on the ground level (with Meiwah in Washington's West End). Now he's looking up, with a second Meiwah in Chevy Chase, ensconced on the second floor of a new office building.
It's a snazzy space. A large, old wooden door leads to an expansive dining room, one side of which is nothing but broad windows, the other of which includes a handsome sushi bar and a wide hall opening onto an inviting outdoor terrace (too bad winter is around the corner).
Except for the (misguided) addition of sushi, the menu in Maryland is identical to the one in the District: long and familiar, with dumplings and soups, whole fish and Sichuan beef, Mongolian lamb and sweet and sour pork. If you're looking for esoteric foods, try Chinatown instead. This is neighborhood Chinese restaurant cooking.
Appetizers are generally pleasers. Spicy Chinese cabbage lives up to its billing with a sharp kick of ginger, and scallops are rolled in Japanese bread crumbs and fried until their outsides are lightly crisped but their centers remain soft and sweet. Steamed dumplings hide tasty ground pork centers, though I wish the wrappers weren't so thick and heavy.
An order of "tinkling bells pork" stops conversation as the ingredients are transferred from platter to hot skillet at the table, which results in a cloud of steam and a staccato sizzle. ("Chinese fajitas!" a friend of mine said.) Once the vapor disappears, you'll find thin folds of pork tossed with a garden of crisp vegetables. Another fine meat selection is orange beef, crispy morsels jazzed up with dried strips of orange peel. Steamed whole fish (usually sea bass) with gingery soy sauce proves delicate and moist, its ivory flesh scattered with julienned leeks for color and balance.
When I see "Chinese spaghetti" on the menu, I start quizzing my waitress. "You won't like it," she says, shaking her head. I order it anyway and am pleased to make the acquaintance of the comforting northern Chinese dish known as cha chiang mein. A crumble of ground pork, soft mushrooms and crisp water chestnuts in a light gravy spooned over a bowl of slippery noodles is quiet comfort.
Meiwah's Peking duck doesn't measure up to the best in the area; the meat is short on savor, and the skin doesn't crackle the way it should between the teeth. Carved before our eyes, the duck is merely pleasant, like a number of dishes here.
It doesn't matter. Meiwah's neighborhood is apparently starved for places to eat that don't scream "chain." Every time I've dropped by, be it lunch in midweek or dinner on Sunday, the foyer is crowded, the house playing to full capacity and the noise level at a low roar. It's a good thing the staff is quick and efficient, the tropical cocktails are big and potent, and the prices are so friendly.