Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Reservations. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Prices: At lunch, main dishes $6.50 to $14. At dinner, appetizers average $5, main dishes $7.50 to $25.
Red tape untied and waiters black-tied, Washington now has two mainland Chinese restaurants where before there were none, and nearly 30 chefs from Sichuan province imported to staff them. Sichuan Pavilion, the second to open, has had a lot of catching up to do since its near competitor, Sichuan Garden, began with a great flurry of national publicity to become an immediate success.
A year ago Sichuan Pavilion would have impressed us immensely. Today it suffers by comparison. Before it would have charmed and amused us with its awkwardness, which we would have credited to its foreignness. Now we have the Sichuan Garden to show us that the culture gap can be bridged.
One problem with the Sichuan Pavilion is that it keeps reminding you that it is No. 2. The m.aitre d'h.otel hovers and explains that its chefs came as a team and thus work together well, whereas "other" Chinese restaurants have brought in chefs individually. The hostess explains that there are 11/2 chefs in each specialty so that if one is out, the other can take over. The waiter boasts that the kung pao venison, described on the menu as venison with peanuts and hot peppers, is made with walnuts, rather than the more common peanuts that "other" restaurants use. Every dish is presented with an introduction-- "This is the special chicken, served with special sauce, a specialty of the Sichuan province"--or some such fanfare that interrupts conversation and draws your attention. "This is a carved turnip. It takes the chef only three minutes to carve." Another conversation interrupted. Waiters frequently peek in your covered teacup to see if you need a refill, in addition to pouring again every time you take a sip. "May I take your plate?" "May I take your glass?" "Is there some reason you didn't finish your dish?" If only they would relax a little and let you dine rather than sit through a class on Szechuan cookery.
A lot looks familiar at the Sichuan Pavilion. The formerly French dining room has been left intact with its burgundy lacquered walls, but watercolor paintings of pandas have been hung on them. The panda-theme teapots, the covered teacups and the lacquered chopsticks are familiar to anybody who has already eaten in the Sichuan Garden. And several items on the menu that were new to Washington when the Garden opened are repeated here.
It is the brand new dishes, we have found, that are the most worthy of having transported a dozen chefs halfway around the world. The menu is long and barely descriptive, and the prices are high--soups and appetizers range from $2 to $6, main dishes run from $9.50 to $25 at dinner and you can readily spend $20 to $25 for lunch, more for dinner. Since the range runs from outstanding to mediocre, one needs guidance, luck or patience.
While one appreciates such niceties as pinching the tails off bean sprouts and carving carrots into decorative flowers, subtleties are undone when waiters pile plates high with food so that flavors leach into neighboring dishes. Ask to serve yourself rather than have the waiters portion the dishes on your plates.
Let's start the unraveling with appetizers. Among the nine cold appetizers, tangy duck strips are outstanding, the cold steamed duck marinated in a dark and earthy mixture whose unfamiliar nuances remind you of the restaurant's claim to be bringing its seasonings from China. But also among the cold marinated meats and fishes is mock ham, which is pressed bean curd skin, in this case rubbery and bland.
There is more of interest among the hot appetizers, though they number only six. Sichuan dumplings are tiny and precisely formed noodle turnovers filled with a dab of meat and topped with chili oil (be warned that the menu really means it when it says a dish is hot). Other dough-wrapped appetizers are mild and flaky patties filled with a bit of ham and turnip, and cigar-shaped spring rolls crisp and grease-free but lacking in flavor. Steamed spare ribs are tender and homey, a pleasant, mild counterpoint to hot dishes. And for both heat and adventure, try a bowl of soy bean pur,ee, with its velvety texture reminiscent of yogurt, in a vinegary soy sauce crunchy with minced pickles and toasted soybeans. Sounds strange and indeed it is, but wonderful.
Not so the hot-and-sour soup, a murky mush with wan flavor. If you insist on soup, the deeply beefy broth is a safe bet.
Main dishes include the most elegant of kung pao dishes, venison with walnuts, which shows the Szechuan miracle of sweet-hot complexity. And rice-smoked chicken, the whole bird steamed and smoked over rice to a mild woodsiness, is juicy and delicious, with its skin as lacquered and crisp as Peking duck. Eggplant with garlic is unctuous and rich and displays another variety of the sweet-hot interplay. In fact, dish after dish shows how expertly a palette of seasonings can be used to tease the tongue.
Then you hit the crisp fish, one of the crowns of Szechuan cuisine, to find its crust hard, its flesh dry and tasteless and its sauce blundering into excessive sweetness. Rabbit with vinegar numbs your lips with chili oil but contributes little else in the way of flavor. And then there are dishes that neither irritate nor excite: a smoked duck or a crisp duck with a pleasant flavor and tenderness but not as good as in some of the best suburban restaurants, or scallops with egg yolk sauce that is like overcooked and underseasoned scrambled eggs, though a pretty contrast of colors. The shrimp dishes entice with their seasonings but slip with the shrimps themselves--dry, mushy, tasteless.
Some dishes will be simply controversial. I loved fried layered tofu, the thinly batter-coated skin enclosing a custardy bean curd interior that tasted, oddly but deliciously, a distant cousin of fried matzo. Like several other dishes, it had no sauce or dip with which to moisten it, and some may find it palls after a few bites.
The ma.itre d'h.otel will probably steer you clear of most of the desserts, which he considers unfit for American tastes. Just keep in mind that fresh pineapple and melon cubes with lichees make a refreshing and very Chinese ending; that to our utter surprise we have found the coffee good; and that the damp towels presented at the end of the meal are one of the most civilized traditions of Chinese dining.
In other words, Sichuan Pavilion is doing a lot, but not all of it well. Like the story of the elephant being described by blind men, it will be totally different depending on which day, which chef, which waiter and which dish you come in contact with. The restaurant, overall, is impressive, but that fact may not help you find a grand meal.