Open Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 4 to 10 p.m. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations. Parking. Prices: Most main courses from $5 to $7 at dinner. Full dinners available for bout $6 a person plus tax and tip.
Hsian Foong can teach you something about service. This is a small Chinese restaurant, without formality or pretensions, and the service is not expert. But there is a commitment to serving the diner in the fullest sense that overshadows any small flaws or short waits a diner encounters.
Theirs is not a polished performance. The bartender had to come to the table for her own interpretation of the simple drink one of us ordered. There are gaps in communication, but minor ones. And service has sometimes been slow and even forgetful. On the other hand, the waitress took an interest in what we were ordering, suggeted we had ordered too much, and attended to our table frequently to refill glasses and bring fresh tea -- even after we had paid our check.
Ah, you might say, she found a good waitress on a good night. No, there is evidence this restaurant as a whole is dedicated to pleasing its diners. Look for the clues.
With our drinks one night (drinks, we discovered, are available but not a specialty) we were brought a plate of cold crunchy broccoli stems in seasame oil and soy sauce. As delicious a dish as it was, it became even more so for the surprise. After dinner twice we were brought complimentary glasses of plum wine, because it was the restaurant's first anniversary month and the diners were invited to celebrate that fact. What is more, they even thought to bring the children free Shirley Temples.
And look at the menu. Essentially two pages plus a few specials, it covers a typically wide range of dishes, Shanghai cuisine with sprinklings of Szechuan, Hunan and Peking. And the restaurant is willing to cater to individual interests. You can order a single egg roll (65 cents) or shrimp toast (75 cents), a pu pu platter for one ($3), or half a duck cooked Peking or Yuling style, or camphor and tea smoked ($7). The menu warns that prices of shrimp dishes have been raised 50 cents, "due to extreme price increase." It is a fair increase and, more important, properly announced. The wine list offers seven different wines by the glass -- indifferent wines and small glasses, but costing only $1 each.
Yet all of this very considerate service would not amount to much if Hsian Foong's food were not so good. Like the service, the food is flawed; at one meal three dishes were excessively salty. The soup stocks have been watery. And Peking duck, while beautifully cooked so as to be tender inside and crisp-skinned, its fat scraped from the skin, was unattractively cut.
But so much is done well -- and done so well -- that the errors are far outweighted. The shrimp toast is enough reason to try Hsian Foong. I have never found better; it is a thin layer of crisp fried bread under a thick layer of shrimp pounded to a paste and as light and moist as a quenelle, the whole coated with sesame seeds. Egg rolls are almost as good; their crust is thin and crisp, like spring rolls, but the filling is bland, primarily tasting of cabbage. Fried wonton are totally uninteresting. Meat dumplings are very competent, with thin noodle wrappers, but none of the other appetizers compares with the shrimp toast. Spare ribs, listed as a main course, are large and very meaty, lightly seasoned and cooked to a fine crustiness.
The menu lists at least 14 chicken dishes, but the waitress recommended lemon chicken, and rightly so. It is a very pretty dish, garnished with lemon slices and cherries, made with boneless chicken breasts marinated in wine, layered with a slice of ham, coated with a light batter of water chestnut flour and egg white, crisply fried and not the least greasy. Its lemon sauce is quite sweet, too sweet for my taste, but the dish was delightful. Don't miss, however, the camphor and tea smoked duck, the best I have had in this country. The duck meat is tender and juicy, well permeated with the spicy smoke of camphor and tea. The skin is crisp and highly seasoned. It is a dish of haunting flavor and superb texture.
Also one should order shrimp, even if the price has been raised 50 cents. The shrimp are small to medium size, but cooked and seasoned sensitively. Two Kind Shrimp is a Szechuan dish, but hot pepper is used with great restraint here. The shrimp are tossed with two different sauces, one tomato red and one tranlucent, and mounds of these two distinct colors and flavors are divided by bright green shreds of beans. A beautiful dish it is. Tung ting shrimp is milder, more subtle, contrating firm, juicy shrimp with crisp green broccoli, soft mushrooms and fluffs of chicken velvet. Each part was finely executed except for an excess of salt.
Beef has been disappointing at Hsian Foong. It was too thinly cut and overcooked and beef Shanghai was in murky brown sauce. Whole fish dishes are better, the steamed one more successful than the fried Hunan fish because the latter was overcooked and underseasoned. The steamed fish was soft and supple, not attractively presented but handsomely seasoned.
If you like hot dishes, seek one called Ants on the Trees, a tangle of transparent thin noodles with bits of ground pork clinging to them (hence the name), highly peppered and an interesting contrast of shape, texture, and flavor.
I never got around to seasame chicken or home-styled pork chop. The kitchen's talent with duck tempts me to try it. Yuling style. Fried smoked pork has me curious, and I would like to discover first-hand whether the dozen more shrimp dishes are as good as the shrimp toast, Two Kind Shrimp Velvet. Besides, the dessert designated only as "Unique -- a specialty of the House" was not available on my visits, and I am intrigued by its description as fried water chestnut and almond cake.
One forgets the look of the place. Hsian Foong sounds like Muzak and looks like Muzak.Its three dining areas are decorated with red and gold velvet wallpaper. Orinetal cutouts andd brass chandeliers, but one remembers visually this restaurant for its seating variety: some tables with privacy and others more open. But mostly one remembers Hsian Foong for its small attentions to patrons and to food that makes the difference between an everyday Chinese restaurant and one that stands above the crowd.