2400 Wisconsin Ave. NW.965-1185 Open Monday through Thursday, noon to 2:30 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m.; Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m. and 6 to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations.
Prices: luncheon main dishes $4 to $5.50; dinner main dishes $6 to $10.50.
IT is really too soon to review Germanine's new Asian restaurant, because the restaurant is continually changing. But I suspect that will always be true. I also suspect that the changes will continue to improve what is already a very good restaurant.
Germaine Swanson takes her time. Known around the city as a superlative Vietnamese cook, she has been on the verge of opening her elegant Asian restaurant for at least two years. Even after it opened, early this fall, she resisted moving too fast. The menus are still temporary; she planned to postpone permanent menus for at least six months, after she will have learned what works best and is most favorably received. Thus, the menu is still in the testing period. Daily specials are printedle on a separate sheet, and Germaine might drop by your table with a sampling of something like crisply fried sugared and salted seaweed (score: 1 plus, 1 minus at our table). She talks of special Sunday dinners, perhaps a rijsttafel (cast my vote yes).
So let this review stand as an interim report. That will give me a welcome chance to dine at Germaine's again in a few months to see how it is coming along.
To start back at the beginning, it is a long climb up to Germaine's second-floor restaurant, but the open space feels as if you have reached the mountaintop. The ceilings are low, but the room emits a golden glow in the evening, reflected in gold and brown tablecloths. In the daytime, the mustard-colored Formica tables look more casual, and the picture window view over Wisconsin Avenue makes one feel supremely urban.
One dines surrounded by good taste and imagination. Between the two dining rooms is an expanse of grill, where a deft chef skewers and cooks meat and shrimp sates, spareribs and teriyaki. Grills are not traditionally handsome pieces of equipment, but this is considerably more than a traditional grill.
In the two dining rooms, the tables are well spaced on dark carpet, interspersed with a restrained touch of greenery. The cane chairs are comfortable. The walls are set with a few distinguished Oriental works of art. On the tables are low, carefully crafted Oriental flower arrangements. The waiters wear gold cotton tunics with the restaurant's logo, move and serve in a remarkably dignified manner. The aura of elegance, however, is marred from time to time by a peculiar vibration of some of the tables, almost as if the diner were a passenger in a subway. The Arthur Treacher's downstairs is blamed. Whatever the cause, I keep meaning to remember this problem in time to ask for a quiescent table.
Moving from the visual to the edible, the menu is extensive -- eight pages at last dinner visit -- with a pan-Asian scope from cold Szechuan noodles to Korean kim chi, from Hawaiian-style chicken to Vietnamese spring rolls, from Indonsian states to Japanese teriyaki. Much of the menu is Chinese, but it is a Southeast Asian rendition of Chinese cuisine, and Germaine's own personal version of that.
If there is one serious problem at Germaine's, it is choosing from the menu. I never got around to the Szechuan dried beef, or the chicken breast stuffed with minced shrimp and sauced with ginger. I missed the Peking duck. The Peking-style pork with eggplant is becoming famous in some circles, but I just couldn't get around to it. There are whole categories -- stir-fried shrimp, firecracker shrimp, three-colored shrimp, shrimp curry -- that totally escaped my chopsticks. Too much. As full as I might have been, I always left Germaine's with my mouth watering.
Once I discovered the soups and the sates, however, I could never manage to skip them. Plan on making dinner at Germaine's multi-course project.
The cold bon bon chicken is an exquisite version, the julienned chicken being like little strips of velvet on a shredded green bed of cucumber. The dark peanut sauce is piquant and biting, as it should be. Hot appetizers need to go back to the shop for finer tuning. Cha gio, those Vietnamese spring rolls wrapped in fragile rice paper, are small, and a rather insignificant portion for the price. What is more, their filling is underseasoned and pasty. There are better ones in town. Hawaiianstyle chicken, too, is properly cooked but bland, its apricot sauce cloying. The dish is disappointing, especially if one has tasted the similar Thai Room special chicken. Shrimp cakes -- beautiful golden pillows of potato with green scallion and pink shrimp accents, have varied from spicy to bland, have been made sometimes with sweet potato, sometimes with white potato.
Soups, if you don't mind pepper-prompted tears, are a wonderment of sour and aromatic and fiery interplay in clear broths with shrimp and lemon grass or chicken and noodles. Germaine's is the first restaurant I have found that can use fresh coriander with enough restraint that the pungent herb does not overpower its dish.
All that is prelude to the sates.If there is one reason for going to Germaine's, it is the shrimp sate. Two juicy shrimp curled on each skewer are dressed with a lightly thickened brown garlic sauce faintly curried, slightly tart, extraordinary. The other sates -- pork, beef and chicken -- are also fine, each distinctively seasoned and skillfully grilled and served with a peanut sauce that varies from humdrum to spicy depending on the day. You can get a combination of the four sates. Make mine shrimp.
Also from the grill, and also raised to grandeur, are lemon grass barbecued spareribs, bursting with juices under a ruddy, slightly charred surface, fragrant with sweet flowery lemon grass and plenty of pepper.
That only brings us to the main body of the menu, the stir-ried and deep-fried and steamed meats and fish and vegetables, most of which sound as familiar as any Chinese menu -- but are not. First, there is no monosodium glutamate used in Germaine's kitchen. Second, the timing of the cooking is impeccable, the vegetables precisely crisp enough, the seafoods cooked just beyond the gelatinous raw state, the meats just to the point of firmness, before their juices evaporate. Sauces are light and clear, never starchy. Dishes are arranged with an eye for beauty, with decorative touches like carrot flowers.
Then, there is the magic. Take, for instance, a whole fish blanketed with a brown ginger sauce. It is peppery, but the pepper is an accent rather than the main theme. Ginger is present but quiet. There are ground pork and water chestnuts. And an interplay that one cannot hope to sort out; one just abandons the intellectual exercise and calls it delicious. So it goes with lemon chicken, a whole chicken breast lightly batter-fried and sliced, topped with a vermilion tomato sauce, lemony and beyond mental dissection. Perch filets are stuffed with a meat and noodle filling similar to the cha gio, and floated in a pale gold coconut sauce with scallions and other culinary sleights-of-hand. Each sauce is different -- the brown sauce on the home-style scallops has grace notes of pungent brown beans and hot pepper, while the brown sauce on double-cooked lamb is a whole other family of flavors. A special seafood in a nest -- the nest being a fried basket of julienned potatoes -- looked like a typical Cantonese seafood melange, but had an unexpected delicacy and subtlety.
Errors are certainly made in this newly developed kitchen.The double-cooked lamb, despite its elegant sauce and crisp broccoli, was an embarrassment of extremely strong-flavored lamb. At lunch, main dishes have been served lukewarm. Korean dry beef as a special appetizer was just chewy shreds of faintly sweet beef that was remarkable only in its being surprisingly boring. Hot appetizers don't measure up to the rest of the menu, and dessert -- limited to Le Sorbet sherbets, fresh (and very ripe) pineapple and almond tofu with fruit are an adequate choice, but not as tempting as the other courses. Besides, one day the almond tofu was a refreshing blend of smooth almond gelatin squares with chopped melon and other fresh fruits, another day the gelatin tasted faded and rebbery.
Lapses, in all, are few. And such levels of quality and comfort warrant substantial price. Thus, one expects Germaine's to be expensive. Soups are $1.50 (except the meal-in-a-bowl, pho, $3.25 at lunch). Appetizers average $2 to $3 at dinner, except the sates, which climb as high as $4. On the high side they are, but not unconscionable.
Some of the main dishes are irritatingly expensive, however. Four spareribs, admittedly delicious, are hardly a $7.50 portion. Most main dishes are $7 to $9 at dinner, but the seafood basket was $10.95 as a special, and shrimp dishes approach that. Lunch main dishes are $4 to $5.50. Balancing the food prices, though, are thoughtfully priced wines, an interesting list that includes some of California's better finds. For as little as $5, a very satisfying bottle can be chosen. You can accompany your meal instead with sake or Asian beer, and there is a full bar. In any case, if you splurge on the spareribs, you can compensate with the wine's low profit margin.
Germaine's is still open to suggestions. I suggest they keep on doing more of the same.