4515 Willard Ave. (in the Willoughby apartment building), Chevy Chase. 654-4644 Open Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 3 to 10 p.m. MC, V. Reservations. Prices: Lunch main courses average $3; dinner main courses average $5.
SOME restaurants start with two strikes against them. Dragon Seed is the third Chinese restaurant in its location, and my experience at the earlier two was highlighted by the valet parking, which consisted of turning on my car's parking lights and leaving it on the street. That, coupled with the large new electric sign in front announcing the Dragon Seed's "Peiking Szechung Cuisine," made me wary, even though valet parking has been dropped altogether, and I assume that spelling and cooking are independent talents.
Even now in its third incarnation, this is not one of the city's star-quality Chinese restaurants. But as a neighborhood restaurant it excels, and provides one of the nicest eating environments in which to wield a chopstick.
One of the Dragon Seed's major assets is space. The entry is a graceful display of Chinese vases bordered with a rock garden. Tables are sufficiently separated that privacy is inevitable. So extravagant is the room that the green plants are scattered around the floor rather than hung from the ceiling.
Far from the usual Chinese red so typical in Oriental restaurants, here the room is softly tinted. Walls are a deep rose, on two of them flowery murals and on others gilded lattice-work. The enormous space is divided into three dining areas, one brightly lighted and the other two more subdued. Napkins are folded into flowers on the tables. Quiet Chinese music plays.From the first moment, Dragon Seed is easy to like.
The greeting is warm, and tea appears at the table as soon as the patron is seated. Easier and easier to like.
By current Chinese restaurant standards, Dragon Seed's menu is small. Since every item is numbered (soft drinks are No. 83), the count is impressive, but much of the menu is pedestrian: chow mein, egg drop soup, ice cream. It breaks down to a mainly routine listing with six shrimp dishes, 11 beef dishes, one lamb, six chicken. There are, however, a few departures from the most basic Chinese menus, among them a Szechuan whole fish, sauteed crabs in the shell, and three curries. Furthermore, the management challenges diners to order whatever Chinese dishes they like, whether or not they are on the menu.
One night we wrested some squid from the kitchen, and it was a dish as pretty as the restaurant itself. The squid had been cross-cut so that it curled into flower shapes, its pure white contrasting with green peas and scallions, and orange carrot cubes in a pale translucent sauce. In flavor it was similar to another day's special request, shrimp with broccoli, also in a clear white sauce. The seafoods and vegetables were deftly cooked to leave them with some crunch. There was a problem with both dishes, however; they were heavily laced with slices of garlic that were like surprise attacks when you bit into them. A little garlic restraint or its introduction in more subtle form would have been an improvement.
Except for garlic, the chef understands delicacy. The sauces are light and starch-free. Seasonings are mild. Even crabs sauteed in a peppery brown sauce with black beans is clearly of Szechuan origin but far from explosive.
Probably the Dragon Seed understands its audience in seasoning its dishes lightly. I found its best dishes, however, the ones that made the strongest statements. Pork Chung King was well armed with chopped ginger, pepper and garlic (more appealing in its finely chopped form) in its brown sauce. The contrast of mild pressed bean curd, crisp cabbage, pungent green pepper and soft juicy pork slices was enticing. Moo shi pork, on the other hand, was an equally appealing mix of crisp vegetables and soft fungus and pork, but its ginger was a quieter accent, and the dish was faintly seasoned.It could have used more assertiveness. Peking duck, carved at the table with a flourish and properly crisp-skinned and moist-fleshed, was totally unseasoned until you slathered its pancakes with thinned hoisin sauce and scallions. Although the menu does not yet state it, you can order half a Peking duck for $8.
Dishes at Dragon Seed are plentiful. Cooking is attentive, so vegetables remain bright and crunchy, meats moist. One rarely sees an excess of oil or a pool of sauce drowning a dish. In other words, it is good food, though not inspired or remarkable. The exception is the appetizers; the deep fried dishes (egg rolls, fried wontons, tempura shrimp) taste only of dough and grease. Even the spareribs lacked character.
Whatever distinction the food is missing is compensated in the service, which is eager and communicative. When a waiter didn't know what was in the house special Polynesian drink, the whole dining room staff scurried to find out (the drink, however, was not worth the bother). After serving crabs in the shell, the waiter brought a finger bowl (actually, a large souffle dish with acidulated water). Assorted staff frequently checked on our welfare, and no sooner was a plate emptied than it was whisked from our table.
Prices at Dragon Seed are moderate, with appetizers from $1.50 to $2.75, main dishes from $3.50 for fried noodles or fried rice to $9.95 for Szechuan lobster. Most of the meat dishes are $4 to $5, so for under $10 a person a party can eat plentiful food in uncommon comfort.
The Willoughby Apartments and suburban Chevy Chase at last have a Chinese restaurant that has gotten past first base.