Open 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Reservations required. Prices: At lunch, main courses average $8. At dinner, appetizers $4.50 to $8.50, main courses $8.50 to $19.95. Full dinner with tax, tip and wine, about $30 to $35 a person.
One good Chinese restaurant deserves another, or so it seems in Washington these days. The newest is Mr. K's, an establishment even more glamorous than Sichuan Garden and Sichuan Pavilion, its mainland Chinese-owned competitors. With its velvety gray curved banquettes, etched glass murals, mellow golden wood framing mirrored columns, Mr. K's looks soft and luxurious, right down to its solid onyx ashtrays.
Oh, the start-up costs restaurateurs are willing to risk these days! Mr. K's serves its rice and soups in etched silver holders with domed tops that roll closed. The diner's chopsticks and spoon rest on silver lion bases, a service said to be duplicated in gold for special banquets. The crystal is delicate and has the logo in silver; the plates are porcelain and have the logo in gold; the tiny stemmed cups for palate-cleansing intermission sherbet are of silver. Even the duck sauce and mustard are presented in footed silver dishes worthy of bonbons in the royal court.
Mr. K's has aimed high. And despite rumors of banquets with outlandish tariffs, its prices are right in the mainstream of the new upscale Chinese dining strip.
The low wine prices, however, have restaurateurs around town gasping. Mr. K's encourages wine consumption by pricing it at retail level or lower. That means the wines sell for half what other restaurants are charging; many, such as the Alsaces and the vouvrays, are under $10. A good Franch champagne is $23, a decent sparkling French wine is available for $10. While the wine list is not large, it is well chosen to suit Chinese food. And the house wine -- which sells around $12 a bottle -- is placed on the table and charged by what portion of the bottle you consume.
Dinner starts and ends with hot towels for your hands. In between there are dishes the menu described in scrumptious prose: Silver Gourd Savoury, Peacock Duck, Perk Loquats "in Ming Dynasty classic sweet and sour sauce." By Chinese standards the menu is small, about a dozen appetizers, two or three dozen main dishes. Certainly enough.
The food is beautiful and well prepared, but it is limited to a narrow range. That means you are likely to find each dish delicious on its own but repetitious in shape, intensity, flavor and style. Three of the four pork dishes are julienned, the three beefs are in chunks, the three lambs and two of the ducks are paper-thin slices. Dishes designated as peppery impart more of an impression of hot spice than actual fire on the tongue. By the time a group of diners has sampled an assortment of dishes, they are likely to remember a melange of pleasant and complex tastes rather than distinct, varied and individually memorable dishes.
Two of the memorable dishes are sweet-sauced: Beef mimosa is a variation of the classic beef with orange peel in which the beef is crusted with spices and well browned, served in a lightly peppered and sweetened dark glaze with bits of dried orange peel and singed red peppers. Its flavor lingers and its texture is stimulating. Pork loquats is also sweet but without the pepper. The pork is tender and long-cooked, then fried in a light batter and served in a fragrant sauce of alarming orange color and mild sweetness, contrasting nicely with not-too-sweet loquat slices. Pork with plum sauce is also lightly sweetened, but the pale julienned strips of meat are tossed with just enough mellowed plum sauce to coat them delicately.
The sliced-duck dishes are tender, fragrant and faintly peppery, the sliced lamb is tender and pleasant -- beautifully cooked meats, sometimes presented with bits of vegetable for seasoning and color. But you may want to order a vegetable dish to round out a very meaty menu.
Seafood dishes include king crab, shrimp, scallops and sole, plus one lobster and one frogs' legs dish. Actually, there is also a steamed whole sea bass, but the waiter warned us and we agreed when we tried it that it should be ignored (or executed better), particularly since it joins the other fish as the highest priced dishes on the menu. It was stingily small, embarrassingly overcooked and unpleasantly fishy; and its mushroom and ham garnish tasted as if their flavor had been boiled away.
Overcooking also flawed the "crispy" duck, which was well seasoned but fell off the bones.
Mr. K's buys spectacularly large shrimp -- though some we encountered were iodiney -- and cooks them to crystal translucence. They look stunning, whether as Willow Prawns in a glisten of clear glaze with red pimiento, green onions and ginger; or steamed in foil for Silver Gourd Savoury with a few bits of green pepper, mushrooms and scallions.
Beginnings and endings are quirky. Appetizers include delicious and particularly sophisticated dumplings -- Lovers' or Vegetarians' -- or rather mundane shrimp toast. Quail curl (first introduced at the House of Hunan from which Mr. K's spun off) and honeyed pecans and lamb in aspic are good. But lobster roll is dry and bland, smoked salmon fillet is in need of some sauce. And the soups we had were uniformly watery -- dreadful, in fact.
Desserts are western: a cart of pastries from the Watergate and other bakeries, and limp, sliced strawberries or kiwis in makeshift foil bowls. They don't fit the Chinese environment. Along with the (sometimes) elaborate warming of teacups and brewing of coffee, in what look like Baccarat bunsen burners, Mr. K's ends in a European mode.
Despite awkardness here and there, and a few culinary missteps, Mr. K's glamorous setting, sensible wine pricing and graceful cooking are drawing the curious. But Washingtonians are wary of gracious Chinese restaurants that turn indifferent and pack in crowds to capitalize on their success. Already the flower arrangements have been left to grow straggly. But with those curved banquettes, Mr. K's will never be able to wedge in more tables, and that is a promising sign.