The Real Deal
Yearning for genuine Chinese food? Head straight to this Glover Park teahouse.
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008
Sound Check: 64 decibels (conversation is easy)
I've been craving Chinese food ever since I got back from Beijing this summer. Yet for the most part, deja vu has eluded me. No restaurant in the Washington area serves a Peking duck as succulent as what I encountered at the glamorous Duck de Chine, nor is there to be found locally the range of blazing flavors that race through every meal at the Sichuan Provincial Government Office Restaurant, which, despite its dull name, offers a treasure trove of exciting eating. So when a reader tipped me off to Shanghai Tea House in Glover Park, I canceled my reservation at a starry dining room and headed to this second-floor storefront instead.
Foie gras and Burgundy can wait. The promise of good dumplings and snow pine tea -- scarcer commodities in Washington -- cannot.
Before you rev up the Prius, allow me to share a few caveats. Shanghai Tea House sounds a little more poetic than it presents. Its tables are bare except for some condiments, and the display case near the food counter, where bubble teas are made to go, has been empty every visit. But the lute music in the background helps establish a tranquil scene, as does the bamboo in the front window facing Wisconsin Avenue. And the teahouse theme is advanced with a few shelves holding pots, cups and teas.
There are a lot from which to choose: 20 or so green and oolong and black teas and tisanes, served in clear pots atop small burners. They encourage, and frequently reward, experimentation. That snow tea, for instance, goes down fragrant and woodsy. Gunpowder is an even stronger green brew (and gets its name not from its boldness but from its resemblance to gunpowder pellets used for cannons). If you like things on the sweet side, consider the ginger-steeped black tea or the "Eight Treasure," an infusion flavored with raisins, rock sugar, dates and other enhancers. Fans of bubble tea, the Taiwanese import featuring chewy balls of pearl tapioca in the bottom of every glass (and requiring a fat straw to slurp them up), will cheer at the sight of the drink here. It comes in 10 flavors, including mango, almond and coffee. As this review was going to press, a beer and wine license had yet to be approved.
Hot and sour soup is both, a bracing beginning. And shrimp wonton soup is as much a pleasure for its clear, scallion-flecked broth as for the delicate white packages of seafood bobbing in the bowl. But the appetizers that draw me back, and remind me of how I spent my summer vacation, are the kitchen's boiled dumplings. They come stuffed with juicy pork, beef, vegetables or lamb. The last, sweetened with cabbage and carrot and laced with ginger and sesame oil, proves the most intriguing. Each order of eight comes with two sauces (black vinegar with garlic and hot pepper sauce), which your waitress is likely to mix together at the table. Another simple pleasure is the thin, crisp sesame pancake, cut into triangles and quick to disappear as you wait for your main course to come.
Most of the dishes that come out of the small kitchen strike just the right balance. A stir-fry of "spicy" pork lives up to the description (it's hot with black pepper and salty with black beans), but the folds of lean meat also get a touch of sweetness from the onions, carrots and celery in the toss. "Cabbage Tofu Home Style" (No. 6 on a list of lunch specials) sounds like a snooze but turns out to be a dish I'd be happy to order again. Pale green cabbage leaves mixed with large and creamy squares of soybean curd, all moistened with a light sauce coaxed from the cooking water and chicken broth, make a delicate and delicious statement thanks to scallions, ginger and garlic in the seasoning. Sweet-and-sour salmon slightly favors sugar over tang, but the fish is cooked just right and is decked out with colorful, crisp vegetables.
Shanghai Tea House's food has a home-prepared quality, but it is presented as if for company. The dumplings show up on a pretty leaf-patterned plate, while that cabbage and tofu combination arrives on a dish that matches the color of the cabbage. Oddly, the restaurant offers only cocktail-size napkins. So eat neatly.
More so than Americans, Chinese revel in kuo gan, or mouth feel, something I was reminded of often during my meals in Beijing. ("Crunchy is good!" I can still hear my guide say as she gnawed on a pile of bony chicken morsels buried in red chili peppers at the aforementioned Sichuan Provincial Government Office Restaurant.) Ovals of sticky rice cake look like sliced scallops, but they're pleasantly chewy. Stir-fried with a choice of chicken or pork, wisps of cabbage and velvety mushrooms, the glutinous starch is one of my favorite noodle dishes here.
Ventures into more mainstream dishes make me wish I had ordered another plate of dumplings instead. General Tsao's chicken, for instance, is no better than what you find at most Chinese carryouts. But, as with other selections, I appreciated the option of brown rice with my entree.
Co-owned by Lily Zhang, who ran a teahouse in Beijing for three years, Shanghai Tea House has been open since March. But it sometimes feels even younger than that. The one or two servers understand enough English to bring you your tea but are also prone to forgetting part of your order. (I'll have to go back to try the "tea egg" appetizer I asked for on my final visit but never saw.) Drop by more than once, though, and you'll be made to feel like a regular. Close your eyes, and you can pretend you're halfway around the world.