New Hunan and Szechuan restaurants seem to spring up as readily as shiitake after a rainstorm, or so it seems to old China hands. Witness the proliferation just in the downtown area in the past year. For those who can't get enough of Peking duck and orange-flavored beef, here are seven new candidates to add to your list.
Descriptions have been excerpted from reviews by Phyllis C. Richman. Abbreviations for credit cards are as follows: AE, American Express; C, Choice; CB, Carte Blanche; DC, Diners' Club; MC, Master Charge; V, VISA. CHARLIE CHIANG'S -- 1912 I Street NW. 293-6000. L $4.95-$5.95, D $7.50-$18.95. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Full bar service.
Clearly, Charlie Chiang's aims for a big splash. The overall look is Hong Kong extravagance, but unlike most Hong Kong restaurants, this one has space between the tables, soft colors in the carpet, sun filtering in through vast windows. One feels well cared for here. One does not, however, necessarily feel well fed. Appetizers, for the most part, are gummy, oversweetened or dried out. But the shrimp balls are light and fluffy, with the taste of shrimp and the crunch of water chestnuts. And Crispy and Sweet Walnuts are a delight of crunch. Charlie Chiang's Soup, too, is delicious -- a slightly thickened broth with clouds of eggs, bits of fish, corn, tiger lily buds and the aroma of sesame oil. The main dishes sound poetic, but little of the food is as exciting as the description and appearance promise. If Charlie Chiang's continues to be successful, it will be for such dishes as General Tso's Shrimp, sampled at lunch one day, and Pork with Dried Bean Curd, a wonderful mingling of aromas in which no one dominates. CHINOISERIE -- 3139 M Street NW. 337-6100. L $6.50-$11.95, D $7-$48. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Reservations strongly recommended. Full bar service.
Chinoiserie is a beautiful restaurant, hushed and serene. Its environment and prices set such high standards that one might reasonably anticipate the best Chinese food in town. It is not -- though it is good. It's food of delicacy and elegance. If I were going to Chinoiserie for two dishes, they would be Peking duck and orange-flavored beef. No one makes a finer Peking duck -- the combination of juicy meat, crisp and paper-thin skin, scallion brushes and sweet bean paste in thin, dry, flexible pancakes is one of those great classic eating experiences. As for the orange-flavored beef, large, thick slices of beef are as tender as pot roast on the inside, crusty on the outside, with a thin veneer of seasoning that is caramelized, slightly spicy, faintly orange-flavored and just a bit sweet. Among the hot appetizers, steamed dumplings seem to be the most promising choice. The chef has a subtle touch and the authenticity to leave dishes only lightly washed with sauce rather than aswim. He also has a proper sense of timing: The jumbo shrimp are crispy and juicy, the meats just cooked, the vegetables done but still crisp. Although it's good food, sometimes wonderful food, there are an equal number of disappointing dishes, leaving Chinoiserie -- an expensive and presumptuous restaurant -- on the brink. DUPONT GARDEN -- 1333 New Hampshire Avenue NW. 296-6500. L $3.95-$5.25, D $5.25-$19. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Full bar service.
Dupont Circle now has a dim sum brunch and a Cantonese dining alternative in Dupont Garden. What's more, the restaurant's menu is only lightly sprinkled with stars, quenching the fire of the Szechuan stampede in the neighborhood. But even more exciting, Dupont Garden provides the Dupont Circle area with -- at last -- a dim sum brunch on weekends (Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 11:30 to 3). Overall, the food is uneven, too often deficient in one attribute or another to recommend it heartily. Still, given the choice and the price, this is a restaurant worth keeping in mind. It can be a very good value. Take, for example, the roast duck Cantonese-style at dinner. The half-duck was $8.50; the skin was crisp, the meat moist and the sauce of soy and scallions just fine. Best of the dinner dishes we tried was Kingdom Shrimp with Shell, the jumbo shrimp slightly overcooked but savory with a highly caramelized, nearly black sweet-hot glaze laced with garlic. Shrimp may be good here, but avoid the lobster, which was dry and tasteless in several dishes, the greatest disappointment being a Pineapple Delight. Modest prices and modest accomplishments mark Dupont Garden. HUNAN GOURMET -- 726 7th Street NW. 783-6268. L $4-$6, D $5.50-$19. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Full bar service.
So seldom does a new restaurant open in Chinatown that it is automatically a significant event in Washington. That this one -- Chinatown's first Hunan restaurant -- brazenly sidled in next door to the long-standing Golden Palace doubles the impact. Skip the hot appetizers, with one exception: The triple-flavored chicken (well- seasoned wings steamed in foil) is savory and juicy. And the hot-and-sour soup (the pepper and vinegar in ideal proportions, the broth and vegetables all fresh enough to contribute flavor) is outstanding. Among the main courses we tried, the best was roast duck Hunan-style. Lean and crisp, very dark and aromatic, it was sharp and smoky from the black beans in its strong, unthickened sauce. The stir-fried dishes tend to be nicely seasoned but floating in grease. Watch the menu's designation of hot-and-spicy. As usual, hot dishes are printed in red and asterisked. But not always, as was the case with a Double Delight House Special that had a chili-oil punch. Hunan Gourmet, at least at first blush, is a decent little restaurant in Chinatown, but less news than meets the eye. HUNAN TASTE -- 519 13th Street NW. 347-5282. L $4.25-$6, D $4.50-$12. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted only for parties of five or more. Full bar service.
Hunan Taste's greatest asset is its location adjacent to the Warner Theater and around the corner from the National Theater, and it's a restaurant that seems up to the challenge of the pre-theater diner. The most interesting of the appetizers is the crispy shrimp cake -- shrimp pounded to a paste, faintly touched with ginger and deep-fried so that it's surrounded by a lacy crust. The bon-bon chicken is deliciously and boldly sauced, its peanut paste peppery, salty and tart. Orange beef, too, is well seasoned, its sauce so dark it nearly looks burned but is merely well caramelized. And the presentation is pretty: It comes garnished with green broccoli and a touch of red and served on a gold-rimmed white porcelain plate. But the beef, like the chicken, is not first- quality; it is grainy and coarse, but is seared to a crusty surface with a pleasant medium-hot sauce. If a Chinese restaurant can be measured, as many say, by its shrimp dishes, Hunan Taste wins some important points. The tung ting shrimp is a plentiful serving of nice crustaceans, tender and sweet from careful cooking, tossed with a few shards of broccoli, a few snow peas, clouds of whipped egg white and slightly thickened translucent sauce flavored with chicken stock. But avoid the "fried vegetarian meat" on the dinner menu; the "meat" proved to be deep-fried bean curd sheets swimming in a plateful of glop. Not a very clear-cut beginning for Hunan Taste, but perhaps a start for a dining neighborhood in the downtown theater district. JADE GARDEN -- 2033 M Street NW. 822-8885 or 822-8886. L $4.25-$5.85, D $5.95-$19. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Full bar service.
The thing to remember at Jade Garden is the Peking duck, for here is a city bird to compete with the suburbs' best. It looks just as it should: presented whole, its skin plump and golden, droplets of juice oozing from the duck. Deftly carved tableside, the skin, freed of fat, is so crisp it threatens to shatter. The meat is moist and supple. Surely you wo kn't limit dinner at the Jade Garden to Peking duck, though sometimes you may wish you did. Uneven performance follows. Although the list of appetizers is long and appetizing, I have yet to find one that I would order again, except perhaps the chicken wings fried in a water chestnut flour coating. Among main courses, the orange-flavored beef is batter-fried, unlike most around Washington, but the batter is light and crisp, the meat thickly sliced but tender rather than tenderized; and the lightly sweet and definitely hot sauce is good. Chicken Hunan-style is also fried in batter and is served as well with a faintly sweet, rather hot sauce touched with vinegar and ginger. But we fared poorly at lunch with the lemon chicken shrouded in batter an inch thick and sauced with something identifiable as lemon only by its faintly bitter aroma. The restaurant looks appropriate for banquets (which it will arrange), its front room bright and colorful with red lacquer and gold, its back room large and soft-looking, in autumn colors, discreetly decorated with calligraphy and tiles on the walls. Service is rapid and thoughtful at lunch, more leisurely and no less thoughtful at dinner. In all, Jade Garden seems an eminently sensible new Chinese restaurant. TED LIU'S -- 1120 20th Street NW. 223-5160. L $5.25-$6.25, D $6.75-$20. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Full bar service.
No dragon-red cliche, Ted Liu's is one of the most beautiful dining rooms in Washington. The color scheme is as refreshing as disembarking on a Caribbean island, with pale blue quilted-cotton walls, forest-green Formica tables set with pink runners and napkins, leatherette banquettes of teal blue. The problem among all this magnificence, though, is that you don't know what to expect day to day from the food. The Hunan beef consists of large chunks of steak coated with a glaze that includes fresh ginger and a restrained touch of pepper, then quickly cooked so that the coating is crusty, the inside faintly pink. Another time the beef can be in slices with a mushy, tenderized texture. The jumbo shrimp, grilled in their shells, are cooked just as carefully and come sauced with a thick tomatoey paste, spicy and crunchy with scallions. On other days, the seasonings can be bright, the flavors intricate and delightful, but dishes from seafood to noodles are overthickened and greasy. Still, one's chances seem good.