Open Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Prices: Main courses at lunch average $5, main courses at dinner $5.25 to $19, average about $8 to $10. Dim sum average $1.40 a portion.
My stars! A Cantonese restaurant at Dupont Cir cle! A Chinese menu with only a light sprinkling of stars, quenching the fire of the Szechuan stam pede!
It is refreshing to read the menu of Dupont Garden. All those duck dishes: Pan-Fried Duck in Lemon Sauce, Roast Duck Cantonese Style, Pressed Duck with Honey and Pineapple Sauce, Stuffed Duck with Taro Root, Braised Duck with Varieties (sic) and good old Peking Duck. There are all those endearing noodle dishes: lo mein, chow foon, pan-fried noodles, rice noodles. The fish--steamed, pan-fried or sweet and sour--are Cantonese style. And the menu lists four kinds of hot pot. But even more exciting, Dupont Garden provides the Dupont Circle area with--at last--a dim sum brunch on weekends (Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.).
One Sunday the labyrinth of rooms that once had been an American pub was populated largely by Chinese families, meeting and greeting over baked roast pork buns, stuffed duck flippers, stewed beef tripe and congee. Bowls of noodle soup were steaming all over the room. The aroma of meatballs, dumplings and spareribs wafted by. The smell of frying accompanied shrimp and pork dumplings, shrimp balls, taro root puffs and stuffed bean cakes. It looked and smelled like breakfast Hong Kong, and the waiters were rushing around distracted, playing their part to a T.
I wish I could report these dozens of dim sum to be marvelous, but the fact is they varied considerably in quality. Some of them--the steamed pork dumplings, for instance--tasted reheated. The spring rolls were greasy, the fried stuffed bean cake was soggy. The steamed buns' spongy white dough was unfortunately sweet and crumbly. And even those dim sum that were particularly tasty had flaws: the peppery steamed spareribs with black bean sauce were fatty; the flavorful fried shrimp balls were not crisp; the baked roast pork buns, which were generously stuffed with meat that was deliciously seasoned, suffered from sweetness. But there were others to recommend: fried taro root puffs, for instance, and the rice crepes of slick and glossy dough stuffed with bits of fragrant meat or shrimp, topped with a spicy caramelized soy-based sauce. In fact, they were the best I've had of these crepes, which at their worst are simply slippery starch. And the noodle dishes--chow foons with fat rice noodles and chow meins with crisp fried fine noodles--are worth seeking. The chow foon noodles were crumbly when I had them, but well seasoned with ginger, scallion and the like. The chow mein is not the American aberration, but a true Cantonese noodle dish of pan-fried thin noodles tossed with meats or seafoods and vegetables, again well laced with ginger and aromatic seasonings. The seafood version could have done without the tasteless lobster and squid and profited from concentrating more on the scallops and shrimp.
Overall, the food is uneven, too often deficient in one attribute or another to recommend heartily. Still, given the choices and the price, this is a restaurant worth keeping in mind. It can be a very good value.
Take, for example, the roast duck Cantonese style at dinner. The half-duck was $8.50; the skin was crisp, the meat moist and the sauce of soy and scallions was just fine. It remind one that not all good Chinese ducks are Peking. Moo shi pork, another familiar standby that is a pleasure to rediscover after Szechuan and Hunan meanderings, was very good, with plenty of meat and the crunch left in the vegetables, well seasoned and served with admirably thin pancakes. It was too salty, but otherwise promising. Best of the dinner dishes we tried, however, was Kingdom Shrimp with Shell, the jumbo shrimp slightly overcooked but savory with a highly caramelized, nearly black sweet-hot glaze laced with garlic.
Shrimp may be fine at Dupont Garden, but lobster seemed beyond the larder's capabilities. In several dishes it was dry and tasteless, the greatest disappointment being a Pineapple's Delight, in which seafoods and chicken were stuffed in a whole pineapple shell. It looked grand but tasted indifferent.
Appetizers, too, were largely indifferent, except for the Vegetable Curl, a mild and faintly smoky-tasting mince of bean curd, carrots, mushrooms, celery and such, to be rolled in lettuce leaves for eating.
Modest prices and modest accomplishments mark Dupont Garden. It remained somewhat disorganized on my last visits, particularly when the hostess marched us through the service area to get to the dining room. The large ex-pub dining space is a lot to keep organized even when only a couple of the dining areas are being used. The European travel posters don't quite deliver the Cantonese message, but it is a reasonably comfortable and attractive labyrinth of rooms.
Dupont Circle now has a dim sum brunch and a Cantonese dining alternative; that is an accomplishment. A shaky start, but a start.