Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; dinner 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Reservations. AE, CB, D, MC, V.
Prices: Main courses at lunch $5 to $12; at dinner appetizers $1.50 to $7.25; main courses $5.50 to $24, average $9 to $14.
The new Congress came in quietly compared with the Sichuan Garden. This is more than a restaurant, it's an international event, with its 17 imported-from-China chefs, its green tea picked by nimble monkeys and its up-to-$80 Peking-style banquets.
No doubt it's a fine story. Is it also a fine dinner?
It is uniquely upscale for a Chinese restaurant. The menu is poetry: Flowery Rabbit in Garlic Sauce, Fortune Abalone, Tinkling Bells with Sliced Pork. The food behind those names is silky textured, subtly flavored and more likely to be a meat or seafood dish with tiny garnishes of vegetable than the interplay of meat and vegetables that we commonly expect in Chinese restaurants. There are no pools of sauce; rather, the seasonings glisten in a slightly oily wash. And where Sichuan's famous pepper is used, it does not mask other flavors but provides a background of crashing cymbals to their melody.
To be more specific, that rabbit is cut into even bites, flecked with red pepper and tree-ear fungus and moistened with a light brown glaze. Shrimp are curled and pearly pink, very tender and smooth on the tongue, coated with the likes of a fairly fishy and rather hot but intriguing crab roe sauce. And kung po chicken is better than I ever expected that dish could be, with even cubes of chicken lightly browned and thereby tasting a bit smoky, glazed with chili oil and a mingling of sweetness and ginger and tossed with crisp peanuts.
A glass of house wine is poured from a bottle -- Simi, no less -- into an iced goblet; first a sip for your approval. And when we were brought the wrong bottle of white wine and it was replaced, our glasses were also replaced with freshly iced ones -- a bit precious, perhaps, but an impressive level of attention. And the wine list, which could beat those in many French restaurants, has some refreshing low prices -- a $6 soave, a Chateau Montelena for under $30, Domaine Chandon champagne for $19.
The formerly beautiful Apple Tree disco is now a quietly glamorous, carpeted dining room with an arch of two giant ivory tusks at the entrance and the space infinitely divisible by sliding wood-trimmed screens. Whites, grays and beiges predominate, with a few discreet but costly watercolors. And the 180 seats have sufficient expanse between them so that the tone is hushed. This is a dining room where no expense was spared to understate its luxury.
The plethora of chefs in the kitchen allows the luxury to extend to turnips that are carved into chrysanthemums and roses to decorate every dish, and to cucumber fans and carrot flowers that are painstakingly arranged.
Panda teapots and covered teacups were brought from China, as were the fish-shaped porcelain chopstick rests. But the latter have lately disappeared from the tables (the waiter brought several on a plate when we asked what had happened to them), as did the crystal globes floating one dewy flower.
The waiters, in black tie, present the food for your visual appreciation, then apportion it among the plates. According to a waiter we quizzed, only the Chinese ask to do it themselves, but aggressive Americans can, too. The waiters are articulate and smooth; and except for a stray report of a long lunch-hour wait for service, they are quick to pour or light or clear or whatever to fill your needs. After dinner, they bring hot cloths, and if they consider you important enough, they offer you that now-famous monkey tea (if you're not, don't despair, as it is not a decided improvement on the house tea).
Still, some dishes don't work as well as they should. Crisp duck one night was excellently flavored but soggy, and tasted of reheating. Chongquing Style Whole Fish was flawlessly cooked, but its hot sauce had a flavor startlingly similar to petroleum. Pan Fried Noodles were so crisp and long it was difficult to eat them, while the fried wontons under the Tinkling Bells Pork -- a very refined version of sizzling pork -- were so delicate that they immediately turned soggy under the gravy. You can skip the spring rolls, which would be a bargain at $1.50 if they were less greasy and better stuffed. And while the banquets at Sichuan Garden can be a dazzling show of fishpaste panda centerpieces and trays of vegetables carved into eagles, as in mainland Chinese banquets, the prices -- $25 to $80 for food alone -- are unwarranted since most dishes are available on the menu at lower prices.
For your own impromptu banquet, consider the following: Anything with pastry -- from the peppery-sauced little Yu Zhou Style Dumplings or the flaky-dough Chicken Roll as appetizers to the nut-filled and sesame-coated Crispy Pastry at dessert. These dishes show the art of some of the world's best dim sum chefs. Shrimp balls are light and custardy, with bits of crunch, and steamed baby ribs in miniature steamers are a pleasant change from the usual barbecued ribs. Spicy Chicken Soong is a pretty chicken-and-red-pepper dice on lettuce leaves, but it is a little dull. Cold appetizers appeal to some, but the beef dishes are chewy, and the others correct but unexciting. As for the soups, Sichuan Garden has raised wonton and hot-and-sour to new heights, with exquisite dumplings for the former and uniquely delicious Chinese vinegar in the latter. Several other soups, shark's fin among them, have proved bland.
As main dishes, opt for scallops; shrimp and lobster are also beautifully cooked. And for fish, you should try Sichuan's most reknowned dish, Crispy Whole Fish, fierce looking but very steamy white inside, its sauce both sweet and hot but restrained in both. Two dishes not to miss are Crispy Lamb Chunks -- the meat marinated in wine and batter-fried to a unique interplay of crustiness and tenderness and extraordinary flavor -- and Dried Sauteed String Beans -- a common dish, here uncommonly bright and crisp.
All this comes, of course, at substantial cost. While several main lunch courses are in the $6 range, dinner prices cluster above $10, and you would be hard pressed to spend less than $20 a person, often more like $30. This hasn't kept those 180 seats less than crowded. After all, Sichuan Garden has changed not only the old-style spelling of Szechuan to the new People's Republic spelling, but also the way elegance is pronounced -- adding Chinese to the French accent.