Open Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m; Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9:30 p.m. BA, MC, AE.
Food: Ambitious Chinese cooking, inconsistent but often excellent
Style: Modulated Chinese, red-draped and lantern-hung
THE "ONE FROM COLUMN A and one from column B" system of ordering from Chinese menus went out with Old Math. Typical of today's Chinese menus, China Gourmet lists more than 100 dishes representing Sze-chuan, Mandarin, Human and Cantonese cooking styles. Without sage advice, you can get lost among the shrimp (with lobster sauce, with vegetables, sweet and sour, tung ting, with sizzling rice, butterfly, kung pao, Szechuan, curry, with tomato sauce or oyster sauce) before you ever get to the beef or pork. Or you could dine there repeatedly without ever tasting their best - or their worst. Unfortunately, the service is laissez faire - well-meaning but slow - and the waiters are reluctant to offer more than minimal advice. But you know what you want, they execute your request cheerfully, even bringing your dishes in series if you wish, instead of all at once.
The kitchen, like the service, is inconsistent, but its inconsistencies are within a narrow range, and over all the results are very good. Chinese cuisine is dependent on crunchy green broccoli and snow peas, lively ginger and garlic. No self-respecting Chinese kitchen would serve a canned or frozen green vegetable or been sprout. Fish is another matter; many Chinese restaurants squeak through with frozen fish or fresh fish flirting with senility. But at China Gourmet the Hunan fish is a badge of merit, the whole sweet-fleshed creature slashed along its sides and fried until crisp, topped with burgundy-colored sauce flecked with green scallions and red pepper. A bit overcooked, but a work of pride.
Duck, on the other hand, is commonly done well in Chinese restaurants. At China Gourmet it can be uncommonly good when ordered China Gourmet style, roasted so that the meat is moist, the skin thin and crackling, seasoned with a light, tart sauce of lemon, ginger, scallions, garlic and sesame oil, which beautifully cuts the richness of the the meat. A second sampling, though, highlighted the restaurant's inconsistencies. The meat was strong and the skin tough, as if the duck had been hung too long. China Gourmet beef, too, was the first time tender and rar, mated with resilient scallops and crisp vegetables, spooned into a sizzling metal plate at tableside and moistened with a garlicky brown sauce that underlined rather than hid the flavor. Second time around, Hunan beef had a peculiar mushy texture, and its sauce was oversalted but otherwise underseasoned. It tied with pork in oyster sauce for the most disappointing dish of the many we tried.
Skip over the ordinary at China Gourmet, Won ton soup is wan, and when gilded, as it sometimes is with fried won ton, it becomes downright silly. Egg rolls, spareribs and fried shrimp, respectively, were bland, lukewarm and greasy. So for appetizers seek the more exotic: the piquant fried chicken wings, crisp on their own rather than from being dipped in batter; the steamed meat dumplings, their dough pleasantly elastic and filling teasingly gingered, to be dipped in a garlic-pepper-scallion-flavoured soy sauce. The more elaborate soups - dense hot and sour or milder san sien sizzling rice - are delicious.
Start first with an "exotic drink," a recommendation I rarely make. The fruit juices in them taste fresh, the sours are agreeably tart, and the rum is poured with a heavy hand.