Open Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, BA, DC. Reservation advised.
Food: Fire and nice
Price: Moderate, a lot of skill for the money
DOWNTOWN WASHINGTON is ablaze with Szechuan restaurants these days. Last year there were nothing more than a few asterisked (meaning spicyhot) dishes on Cantonese or Mandarin menus. Then came the Szechuan East, soon followed by at least two Szechuan rivals.
I don't know what the Szechuan East restaurant is meant to be east of, but its location seems just right, because an empty table at midday is hard to find. Its carryout window, conveniently and attractively located outside the restaurant proper, does a brisk business even on brisk days.
Inside is one of the most restrained and tasteful interiors ever dreamed up for a Chinese restaurant. Service is on three floors, so the restaurant is much larger than it looks at first glance. Very contemporary, yet unmistakably Oriental, the rooms are lit brightly with simple lanterns, the walls covered with off-white textured wallpaper. White tablecloths are laid under glass tops. Service is paced to your needs, and can readily get you out within an hour at lunch or encourage you to linger at dinner. Waiters are ready with knowledgeable advice about the food, if not the wine.
A little care is necessary in ordering at Szechuan East. Although the memu warns you with a red star which dishes are hot and spicy, those tendto be the ones with the most tempting descriptions. So control yourself, lest your palate burn out halfway through the meal.
Soups are not the restaurant's strong suit; the hot and sour is respectably so, and quite good if you are in shape for it. But the won ton is dreary, and other choices are minimal. Among appetizers, the spareribs are freshly cooked and spiced admirably. Egg rolls are passable, and fried won tons are light and crisp if otherwise unremarkable. One of the best appetizers is found on the po po tray appetizer assortment; it is ground seasoned pork wrapped in paper-thin bean curb and fried. The most disappointing appetizer - indeed, the most disappointing dish I tasted - was dan-dan noodes, pure fire and starch with a patriotic touch of chopped peanuts.
Szechuan East is one of those rare restaurants where the main dishes are the best dishes. Too often in restaurants I would prefer to skip the main course; at Szechuan East, save your appetite.
If you can judge a Chinese restaurant by its beef dishes - and many experts do so - the Szechuan East gets the brass ring. Try it Chengtu style, stic-fried with fried green crisp broccoli flowerets and tiny whole ears of corn, their crunch contrasting nicely with fleshy straw mushrooms and soft gingko nuts. The sauce is blazing with pepper and ginger, yet complex, light, delicious. You could have your beef six other ways, nost of them more gently spiced. Lamb, however, comes only Szechuan style, a real tongue-searer. It is quite different from the beef - richer, darker, salty from soy and smoky as if black beans were pureed into the smooth sauce. The lamb is roasted and thickly sliced rather than stir-fried, garnished with scallions and paper thin bamboo shoots.
Chicken is no less deftly cooked. The ten choices, half of them fiery, range from familiar chicken with almonds to kang pao with its reddish tinge and slightly sweet hoisin sauce tang, or chicken with cashews in an even sweeter plum sauce. Ducks come Peking style, boned and flavored with ginger, or Szechuan crisp style, which is fragrant rather than peppery, admirably fat free but slightly dry.
The menu goes on to six pork dishes, only two of them hot. If you have tried double-cooked pork in other Chinese restaurants, compare it here. Wildly hot, it is juicy and tender pork stir-fried with crisp cabbage squares which soften the blow of the pepper, and soft black mushrooms contrasting with crisp green pepper cubes.
There are vegetable dishes, noodle and rice dishes, but the greatest variety is in the seafood dishes. Shrimp is cookedwith skill, with a thick, retaining its flavor and tenderness, though fire-cracker shrimp, with a thick, sweetened ketcup-red sauce, is a disappointment. Try, instead, the three-color shrimp for a mild contrast to other fiery dishes.
Szechuan East given you the usual Chinese restaurant choice of white or fried rice with your meal. But here the fried rice is no stale afterthought. It is faintly with cinnamon and anise, tossed with touches of pork, egg and peas.
Whether or not the spicing of each dish is to your taste, you should be able to recognize that each sauce is distinctive rather than the soy-pepper-ginger-garlic routine into which Szechuan restaurants too often fall. Sauces are light, rarely overcornstarched or drowning the solid ingredients. If you like your heat milder, ask your waiter to adjust the pepper.
And if you like it hot, you can quench the fire with tea or beer, even Chinese beer. Desserts, as at most Chinese restaurants, are underplayed. But servings are large enough, even at lunch, that you are unlikely to be seeking dessert.
As for prices, the restraint lacking in Szechuan East's seasonings is more evident in its pricing. Lunch main dishes - about half as numerous but no less enticing than dinner choices - cost $3.25 to $3.95. Luncheon carryout menu items run about thirty to fifty cents a dish less. At dinner, main dishes average $4 to $6, soups mostly $1 or less per person, appetizers $1.30 to $2.50. So a two-course lunch would run about $4 to $7 with tip. A similar dinner could be less than $10, up to $25 a couple if you included drinks and splurged on duck or libster.