Open for lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 p.m., for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 p.m. to midnight. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Prices: Appetizers at dinner average $5; main courses at dinner range from $8.50 to $85, average $10 to $16. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip averages $30 or more.
Clearly the members of the staff of Chinoiserie are proud of their restaurant. They recommend nearly everything. They boast that their chef came from David K's celebrated Chinese restaurant in Manhattan. They serve with gravity and precision, presenting dishes with a flourish and portioning them on the plates as if they were preparing a jewel case for your inspection, then discreetly watch lest a plate need removing or a cigarette need lighting.
Chinoiserie was a beautiful restaurant--the Big Cheese-- and now is a quite different beautiful restaurant, its long, narrow dining room lined with grass cloth punctuated only by narrow stripes of red lacquer and gold. Its only other decorations are immense and lovely flower arrangements on one side of the room and a niche centered with a magnificent statue at the other. It is hushed and serene. On your table is a small pottery vase with two branches of delicate yellow flowers. The service plates are bordered with a quiet aqua, and beside them are ivory-toned chopsticks. The waiter hands you a pagoda-red menu that looks like lacquer, with the restaurant's name in gold.
Thus it is no surprise to find within its covers Two-Flavored Lobster at $48, Braised Turtle (order in advance) at $85. But among the 70 dishes are many more reasonable: beef and pork at $8.50 to $9.50, chicken at $9 to $12, seafood dishes at $12 to $21. It is a two-tiered menu where spring rolls, moo shi pork and chicken with cashews would total $20 for two to share, or a couple could easily spend $100 before the wine, tax and tip. But one should plan on its being well over $20 a person, particularly since this is one of the few Chinese restaurants to offer an appropriate choice of wines to match the food.
The restaurant's nature sets high standards for itself, and its formal service--the waiters arrange the food on the plates for you rather than having you take your own portions from serving dishes--reinforces those standards. One might reasonably anticipate at Chinoiserie the best Chinese food in town.
It is not--though it is good. It is food of delicacy and elegance, and sometimes that delicacy slips into blandness. Among the hot appetizers, steamed dumplings seem to be the most promising choice. Their filling is exceptionally good-- juicy, full-flavored, packed with a light touch so it is tender. The dough deserves to be rolled thinner; it is slightly tough. In all, though, they are among the city's tops, and lavished with a small dish of fresh ginger and cruets of vinegar and soy sauce. While minced chicken with pine nuts sounds exciting and looks pretty with diced red bell pepper, it lacks any intense flavor and tastes more of celery than anything else. Spring rolls, therefore, might seem a safe bet, but they ooze grease and are filled with some tasteless mush, the parts of which are indistinguishable. The appetizers also include spareribs, fried shrimp and fried oysters--a familiar list-- and cold dishes such as wine-flavored chicken, jelly fish, kim chi and vegetable duck, a mock-meat bean curd dish. I tried the most commonly available--bon bon chicken--and found it creditable breast meat moistened with a peanut sauce of just enough delicacy and just enough fire, a well-executed dish that is often well executed in Washington. Spicy duck is rarely available locally, though it is not significantly different from the roasted ducks one can buy in Chinese groceries. It is cold sliced duck meat, moist and juicy, with some spring left in the meat. Its marinade is excessively salty and oily, but it doesn't interfere with the duck itself.
Chinoiserie is among the rare restaurants offering shark's fin soup on the menu, and at $8.50 for two it is a bargain for that expensive ingredient. The soup isn't much worth the effort, though, being nearly devoid of flavor. A far better bet is good old hot and sour soup, here light in texture and dark in color, its seasoning aggressive but not overbearing; it may be the best hot and sour soup within the Beltway.
If I were going to Chinoiserie for two dishes, they would be Peking duck and orange-flavored beef. Several local restaurants produce fine Peking duck, and usually at a price lower than Chinoiserie's $25. But none is finer. It comes already carved, the fat carefully scraped from the skin, arranged in a sunburst with a scallion and carrot fashioned into a spray of flowers. The waiter folds and rolls each portion, then deposits on the table the remainder of the duck and pancakes kept warm under a plastic dome. The combination of juicy meat, crisp and paper-thin skin, scallion brushes and sweet bean paste in thin, dry, flexible pancakes is one of those great classic eating experiences.
As for the orange-flavored beef, it is often attempted and seldom so successful as at Chinoiserie. Large, thick slices of beef are as tender as pot roast on the inside, crusty on the outside, with a thin veneer of seasoning that is caramelized, spicy, faintly orange-flavored and just a bit sweet. Though the menu indicates it is spicy hot, it is only slightly so.
Those heat-designating stars are misleading at Chinoiserie. Yu Shiang eggplant and orange-flavored beef were mild, despite their stars, while Hunan pork and broccoli with oyster sauce were fiery, despite their lack of stars.
Among the more intriguing of Chinoiserie's dishes are the Hunan pork--paper-thin smoked pork stir-fried with leeks, a complexity of smoky, sweet and hot, with the sweetness of cooked leeks. And the Yu Shiang eggplant is julienned and melded with strips of meat, red bell peppers, tree ears and a myriad of mingling flavors. The chef has a subtle touch and the authenticity to leave dishes only lightly washed with sauce rather than aswim. He has also a proper sense of timing; the jumbo shrimp are crisp and juicy, the meats just cooked, the vegetables done but still crisp. At such prices, though, one wishes for less sweetness in the Szechuan sauce, more character to the lemon chicken, less overwhelming pepper with the broccoli. Not only were the spring rolls greasy, so were the otherwise delicious pan-fried noodles, crisp and soft and tangled with all kinds of wonderful meats and seafood.
Good food, sometimes wonderful food, and an equal proportion of disappointing dishes--including the tasteless almond custard and the toffee fruit in too-thick a caramel armor for dessert--leave such an expensive and presumptuous restaurant on the brink. A few years ago, it might have been what Washington yearned for. But with several other grand and glamorous Chinese restaurants opening in the city this same season, Chinoiserie will have to fight harder to make its way.