Put away your pens and notebooks. This is not one for your list. Rather, it is a lesson in the pitfalls of restaurant dining.
We should have known malaise had set in when, six months after it opened, Szechuan Lee was nearly empty at the height of the evening. The menu was still the same as on my first visit, still boasting of "Uncle Hoo, one of China's 10 top Szechuan chefs" coming from New York.
We ordered appetizers, and red flags started waving: They were out of shrimp toast, had no honeyed baby spareribs or honeyed chicken wings. The waiter kept trying to talk us into the pu pu platter because it was fast -- which meant precooked and reheated. Standing firm, we instead got greasy spring rolls and greasy dumplings -- both of them otherwise decent -- joined by tempura shrimp that one guest aptly described as tasting like vending machine food.
By then we had learned that the original chef was long gone and now replaced by a chef from a "big Washington restaurant," later revealed by name as a little-known restaurant in the far suburbs of Virginia.
The downward spiral was in motion. In earlier times, Szechuan Lee had Peking Duck in Three Styles, served as three different courses. It served lobster and chicken as one dish with two different sauces, both of them authentic Szechuan tastes. It had an intriguing dish called Hot in the Cold, in which hot pork and cold shredded cucumber were stirred at the table with hot garlic oil, contrasting hot and cold, crisp and soft, green and brown. And most important, it had an excellent Whole Fish with Hot Spicy Ginger Sauce, a bargain at $8, considering that the fish tasted fresh and had been handsomely fried, served slashed and curved on its belly, its skin crisp. Most enticing was its sauce, the closest in recent memory to Szechuan hot-sweet sauce as served in China: red from tomato and chile oil, crunchy with scallions and finely chopped nuts, aromatic with garlic and ginger. A bit too sweet, perhaps, but just fiery enough.
On my last visit I decided to test again the whole fish.
In the meantime, the red flags flapped more furiously: Asked the difference between the Peking Duck in Three Styles ($26 for two) and Peking Duck ($16 for two), the waiter explained that they didn't serve the first one any more. We ordered Peking Duck only to hear then that they were out of it as well, not to mention the Dragon Phoenix Duo, crab and several other specialties. The waiter was, however, enthusiastic about the Szechuan Orange Flavor Beef.
I don't know why. It was spongy beef in a sauce tasting of little but soy sauce and hot pepper flakes -- all the pain and none of the pleasure of Szechuan fire. Several blackened chunks of dried orange peel had imparted no flavor, but chunks of green pepper at least gave some crunch. Coral Shrimp were no better -- tough, dry, iodiney, with plenty of stir-fried vegetables that looked pretty but were distinctly undercooked even for Chinese vegetables. Again the pepper flakes and salt, with little other flavor. Moo Shu Pork was, thankfully, edible. Long on salt and short on pork, it had not distinction but a nice crunch and relief from pepper flakes.
As for the fish, it was a fresh-tasting thing, slightly but not horrendously overcooked. We couldn't eat it, however. Its sauce was a thick sludge that could have substituted for baby food "junior liver and vegetable dinner" with nobody noticing the difference. It was as gruesome an end for a fish as I could imagine. We asked the waiter to taste it; he mused and, being polite, suggested the sauce could have used a touch more sugar.
We left it. Gave up. Asked for tea.
"How many cups?" asked the waiter, the same waiter who had asked how many chopsticks we wanted (but only our third request). No generous spirit here. But service had been a problem at Szechuan Lee before, when our waitress had forgotton little things like plates and chopsticks, only asking if there was anything we needed when we were halfway through our meal, having supplied ourselves utensils from other tables.
The real problem for dinners in a restaurant such as Szechuan Lee is that it is a new restaurant in the old restaurant's clothing. The room -- curved, textured walls with slit windows, caned chairs, green cushioned booths and ceiling panel -- is the same. The boasting on the menu is the same. The menu overall is the same. The prices -- though never high -- are the same. Even the Santa Claus is still stored in the back of the balcony. But the special dishes have disappeared, the complex preparations been dropped, and the savor that issued from the kitchen does so no more.
It is a constant problem in reviewing -- with Chinese restaurants in particular. Chefs change more often than the seasons. Their identities and credentials are presented only vaguely; probably a dozen restaurants at the same time once claimed to have the original chef from the downtown Szechuan. A dishwasher in one restaurant becomes a chef in another; a chef goes on to become a waiter. And lack of public support -- especially for the less routine dishes -- discourages maintaining high quality. The fewer the customers, the longer kept and less fresh the ingredients. That, in turn, drives away still more customers.
In all, Szechuan Lee seems to have given up. So in fairness I have given up on it.
Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, Saturday; 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested only for parties of eight or more. Parking lot. Prices: At dinner, appetizers 80 cents to $3.95, main dishes $4.50 to $10.Lunch plates $3 to $3.75.