The Good, the Bad and the Garish

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, March 29, 2009

Grace's Mandarin
188 Waterfront St., National Harbor

1/2 star (out of four)
Sound Check: 78 decibels (Must speak with raised voice)

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.

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