Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday, dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Prices: Main courses at lunch $4.55 to $6; at dinner $5 to $12, average $7 to $8.
Picture this: On your table is a Swedish-style bowl the size of a soup tureen holding clear broth. When the steam evaporates, you can see floating in the broth strips of ivory chicken, small brown shreds of beef, curled pink shrimp and bright garden colors: green broccoli florets, tiny golden ears of baby corn, earth-brown straw mushroom caps, pale green chunks of cabbage and flat orange flowers carved from carrot slices. Skeins of soft noodles catch the meats as you spoon them into your own glass bowl. The broth smells strongly of black pepper and faintly of sesame oil. You and your lunch companion share the bowlful, which warms and fills you; the bowl of san sien noodles costs $6.
What's wrong with this picture?
Imperial House has some very good Chinese food, at prices that are easily acceptable.
Enter from K Street, down a flight of stairs littered with, among other things, a chicken bone that has remained at least for several days. At the foot of the stairs is an empty flower box. The entrance looks like a subway construction site without scaffolding. Inside, the decor is ex-disco -- in fact, it's still a disco at night. Black mirrors cover some walls, edged in tiny white lights. Curved gray suede-cloth banquettes with their round tables bolted to the floor are so high that stepping down from their platforms is risky. They bring to mind amusement park cars that revolve around a steering wheel.
Except for the strange banquettes, the room has a certain Saturday Night Fever appeal. Tablecloths and napkins are kelly green, chairs are cane and chrome -- and comfortable.You could feel quite festive if you weren't left sitting with your coat in your lap, and if the waiters would live up to their black-tie attire and join the festivities.
The menu says, "Exotic Drinks . . . $2.95."
We ask: What Exotic Drinks do you have?
We put it another way, showing the menu designation: Do you have Exotic Drinks?
Waiter, picking his ear: Yeah.
We eventually got oversized, top-heavy goblets of fruit-style alcoholic syrups over ice, with a $5.50 appetizer platter of stuffed fried grease. Don't bother.
By that time, we also had the waiter's word that he didn't know what the "Crab Meat Quaie Egg Soup (Chief Special)" was, that the Rainbow Sliced Lobster was unavailable and that the honey ham and "fish in Season" were frozen. (When is the season for frozen fish?)
Ours was -- as you might have guessed -- one of only three ocupied tables that evening, but the bar was jumping.
You might also justifiably ask why we were there, and why I am telling all this.
The reason is that the food is usually good, and at lunch the Imperial House bustles with people who have discovered such dishes as san sien noodles (not on the menu, but available for the asking), crystal wonton Shanghai-style soup (well-stuffed noodles and shreds of meat and vegetables for $1.25), delicate and plentiful lamb with scallions or kung pao chicken or shredded and sweet-hot imperial chicken, the whole meal under $10.
While appetizers -- fried things and dumplings -- and other dishes that are major projects may be carelessly handled, reheated and faded, the stir-fried dishes are excellent. What makes them so good is the care with which they are prepared -- broccoli (just the florets and not the stems), meats thinly sliced, vegetables crisp-cooked and shrimp left juicy -- and the sensitivity to seasoning. The sauces are just a slick glaze over the ingredients, with no murky pool in the bottom, as is often found in Washington's Chinese restaurants. And, while the spicy dishes are far from fiery unless you request them hot, they achieve a nice sweet -hot balance. Sesame oil is a faint aroma, chile oil is a scent and a tingle, ginger is a hint and garlic is an undertone. Some of the ingredients are inferior: beef with an odd rubbery texture that seems tenderized, dark meat used in chicken dishes rather than more expensive white meat. But that is compensated by pretty arrangements and adept preparation.
The menu emphasizes Szechuan and Hunan dishes, and contains nothing newsworthy to those who frequent such restaurants. It can't compare in breadth and imagination with the House of Hunan down the street. But if this kitchen were operating in the suburbs, the grapevine would have it well-attended at dinner. Even downtown, the leftover lunch crowds from other Chinese restaurants are enough to fill Imperial House; and despite its impermanent air and erratic performance, lunch at Imperial House is a reasonable risk.
As a flashy disco and classy downtown Chinese restaurant, Imperial House makes a fine shopping center Chinese restaurant.