Open 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Reservations not accepted at lunch for parties under five, accepted at dinner. AE, MC, V. Prices: At lunch, main dishes $4.40 to $5.60, at dinner main dishes $5.25 to $12.95, average $7 to $8. Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip about $15 to $20 a person.
The foreign service may be flooded with requests for home tours once word gets out that dining possibilities in the State Department neighborhood are looking up. Just down the street from State now is a Chinese restau rant that is not only suave enough to warrant a luncheon conference or diplomatic dinner, but good enough that Old China hands can feel comfortable showing it off.
What once was the Golden Table is now the Magic Gourd (which sounds less like a Chinese restaurant than did its continental-restaurant predecessor). And if it learns to soft-pedal its status consciousness and weed out its menu slightly, the Magic Gourd can be one of Washington's best.
The space is grand. Ceilings soar over cascades of modern crystal chandeliers, and the dominant tone of the walls and columns is soft mauve. White linens and black-tie waiters reinforce the handsome formality of curved booths lined in soft pleated leather. Stark and beautiful oriental flower arrangements decorate a room that otherwise benefits from restraint. The enormous room is divided into an intimate bar and dining areas, which are sectioned off by screens that look like elaborate cork abacuses. This is a room for sumptuous dining.
Unfortunately, the tables are diet-size. And here is the first of the Magic Gourd's (admittedly few) problems. One day we sought lunch for two at 1:45 -- not a time when one would continue to expect a big rush. There were several tables empty, but the hostess offered us a table for two in the aisle just beyond the entrance, undoubtedly the worst table in the house. We turned it down in hopes of something better, so she gave us a perfectly nice and quieter table for three. She should have offered it in the first place.
It seems odd that in such a large room they should be squeezing people into too-small tables anyway; four of us had to do considerable shuffling one evening to fit the plates on a table that would have been a generous size for two and comfortable for three.
Service in the evening is enormously attentive. Glasses are refilled after each touch to the lips, it seems; teapots are replaced, ashtrays cleaned, hot towels brought after the meal. The hostess roams from room to room, eager to offer advice to those who can't choose among the 13 chicken dishes, 15 shrimp dishes, the lamb Hunan style, with spring onion or as Double Delight. The menu is not extensive as Chinese menus go, but it offers plenty of variety, from starred hot-and-spicy dishes to Chef's Suggestions to Cantonese or Mandarin or Szechuan-Hunan styles. One endearing thing about the Magic Gourd is that the Chef's Suggestions are only marginally more expensive than the rest of the menu.
The best start for a meal at the Magic Gourd, we found, is Cold Sesame Noodles, $3.75 at dinner and enough for two or more to share. The wiry noodles are firm and coated with a superbly balanced sauce of sesame paste with an elusive sweetness and a touch of vinegar, a heavy dose of garlic and scallion, the whole topped with a crunch of green vegetable to break the uniform texture of the noodles. It is unfathomable why the kitchen can do this dish so very well but slip with bon bon chicken; the chicken itself was nicely cooked and plentiful, but the peanut butter sauce with garlic and scallions was merely all right and lacked that extra tease that made the sesame noodles exceptional. Furthermore, the pepper was unevenly distributed, so that parts of the dish were bland, others searing.
You can also do well with Crispy Shrimp Balls, the shrimp- paste interior light, airy, delicate under a crisp fried bread coating. The familiar jao tse dumplings and the less frequently encountered slippery-noodle dumplings closely related to won tons and sauced with soy sauce and peppery heat were dull, their fillings bland. And Shanghai Spring Rolls had a filling every bit as indifferent.
At dinner appetizers are followed by orange sherbet to clear the palate, which strikes me odd in a Chinese restaurant. And serving the sherbet missed the point because the sherbet was dessert-sweet rather than astringently refreshing.
The main dishes star at Magic Gourd. Orange beef is a good test of a Chinese restaurant, and here it sailed over the hurdle. Thick chunks of beef were coated in the merest caramelized shell of slightly sweet and spicy seasonings. Dark and crusty, the meat was pink inside, and the whole dish nicely contrasted the hues of orange peel, whole red peppers (for looks, not for eating) and fleshy black mushrooms. The dish displayed layers of flavor, delicate yet with hints of fire. Cleopatra Chicken, its mysterious name aside, was also excellent, its sauce much sweeter yet balanced by tartness, plenty of garlic and a threatening but not disruptive amount of red pepper. That crunchy glaze dressed large (like the beef, awkwardly large) pieces of white chicken that were slightly crusty and had been cooked just a moment too long but, nevertheless, were succulent.
The kitchen seasons with subtlety but not timidity. Hunan beef, tender and supple, was prettily studded with red and green peppers in its glossy sauce. Its mild fire might disappoint Szechuan aficionados, but it neatly balanced vinegar tang and pepper so that the flavors of the peppers, scallions, mushrooms and broccoli came through. And shrimp with hot garlic sauce was a mild version, but with a light wash of faintly sweet garlic sauce that was complex yet delicate. Both dishes benefited from the textural contrast of crisp and soft, the color contrast of vegetables and meat.
But there are slips among the main dishes. Lamb Double Delight is side-by-side versions of lamb that tasted too much alike, despite one being stir-fried with scallions and the other with water chestnuts, black mushrooms and, supposedly, hot red peppers. Most disappointing was shrimp with walnuts, the small shrimp with no discernible taste -- just a mushiness under the heavy batter -- and the sauce sweetly similar to the chicken's, though we specifically asked for a contrasting dish. We would have ordered a crispy whole fish, but the hostess was candid enough to warn us that it was a frozen yellowfish rather than something more local and fresh.
Dessert at Magic Gourd makes no attempt at being Western-style elaborate, but is limited to canned oriental fruits, ice cream and sherbet. No loss.
A dinner at Magic Gourd is full of niceties -- carefully garnished dishes, steaming towels brought after the meal. But the best news is that the kitchen backs up these details with solid performance.