Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday noon to 10:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Prices: Appetizers $1.80 to $6.25, main dishes $4.75 to $11.95. Full dinner with beer, tax and tip about $12 to $23 per person.
Do you fancy yourself persuasive? Were you tops in your assertiveness training class? Take a lesson in humility. Try convincing the waiter in an average Chinese restaurant that you don't want MSG in your food. Sometimes your best effort is thwarted by the good old incredulity ploy: MSG? He never heard of it, nor has the chef, the owner or the busboy. Occasionally there's the we-know-best routine: you can't have your food that way because it won't have flavor. Yes, mother. But our favorite reaction is a kind of wonderfully insane reassurance: "We only use a little." Maybe that's what they told Socrates when they gave him the hemlock. "We only use a little."
Happily for those of us who get buzz-headed from MSG, the waiters at China Village are remarkably knowledgeable and accommodating about the problem, and some of them will even warn you about the prepared soups and appetizers where MSG can't be avoided except by abstinence. (All this enlightenment seems fitting, in a way, what with China Village situated practically in the shadow of the National Institutes of Health.) But there's more to China Village than a satisfying clinical conversation with your waiter. In its quiet way, this is a Chinese restaurant considerably above the average. You won't find elegance here (no hot towels or sherbet between courses), or dishes you haven't seen on other menus. What you can expect is an immaculate, plain-but-pleasant dining room; some excellent renditions of standard dishes, with subtle sauces and particularly deft frying; and prices that are low even by suburban Chinese restaurant standards.
Are you turned off as we by the ersatz "tropical" drinks so many restaurants serve these days, the ones they make from little packets of powder? Don't give up. At China Cillage they use real fruit, sometimes fresh if it's in season. Try the peach tree punch, made when we were there with pureed canned peaches, plenty of rum and a peach slice across the top.
On to solid food. One of the very best appetizers is sesame shrimp, otherwise known as shrimp toast. It's a golden, crisp-edged, puffy gem, rolled in clingy sesame seeds, and it pulls off the essential trick in good deep frying: keeping the oil from penetrating to the interior of the food. Steamed dumplings and hacked chicken (known elsewhere as bon-bon chicken) are good version, too. Hacked cabbage -- raw, crisp, hot, sweet, gingery, garlicky -- is more than just an appetizer. Leave it on the table through the meal, and grab some with your chopsticks every now and then for a wonderful palate freshener. "My own" soup deserves special mention: it's a delicious combination of peeled tomato, snowy bean curd and bright spinach, cooked briefly in a broth with big curds of whole egg so that each component retains separate color, flavor and texture.
The hot garlic sauce, available with beef, chicken, shrimp or pork scores high for subtlety and balance. It's moderately hot yet not incendiary; its garlic adds assertiveness but doesn't overpower; there's a slight but far from icky sweetness; and a pleasant vinegar tartness ties the whole thing together. It's especially good with chicken, and, for a meat-free alternative, it comes with broccoli. But Szechuan sauces, judging from the pork dish, are unpleasantly salty and heavy.
If you're especially fussy about shrimp, don't order it here. It's certainly quite edible, but tends to be softish and short on liveliness and flavor. If you don't mind shrimp not quite at its peak, try the robust, chunky green pepper shrimp, with big pieces of crunchy green pepper and onion in a mildly hot brown sauce. Shrimp with plum sauce is for hoisin fans only; others may be turned off by the heavy, one-dimensional sweetness. We found the scallops, by the way, quite unpleasantly mushy.Some happier news: they have a wonderful way with duck at China Village. It shows in the outstanding crisp duck, with its moist, slightly smoky meat, its crackling skin (notice the virtual absence of underskin fat), and its subtle anise flavor. The Peking duck is on a par: skin an amber crunch, and flesh sweet and succulent.
Yuling chicken, roasted, cleft into slices and served in a faintly sweet vinaigrette sauce, is a fine version -- crackly skinned, flavorful and -- at $7.50 for a whole bird -- quite a bargain, too. Kung pao chicken is another solid rendition of a classic dish, the well-trimmed chicken cubes textually balanced nicely playing off the traditional hot-sweet-salt flavors. A bummer, though, is lemon chicken, the meat dry and ropy and the sauce resembling lemon candy. Speaking of birds, yellow bird is not one. It's an unusual vegetable dish in which bean sprouts, tree mushrooms and strips of bean curd are rolled in a thin wrapper of dry bean curd, braised and served in a slightly sweet sauce permeated with what tastes like five-spice powder. An acquired taste, perhaps, but very good, and quite a change from the usual stir-fried vegetable dishes.
Moo shi pork, though it holds no surprises, is a solid winner here, nicely eggy, unwet and with very crisp vegetables (including slices of nearly-raw cabbage, a touch we liked). Like the yuling chicken, san shein wor bar is not only a well-prepared dish but an outstanding buy; $7.50 gets you a big mound of chicken, beef, shrimp and lively vegetables, sizzled at tableside with superheated rice and served in a pleasant sauce touched with ginger. Another solid choice is sacha beef, tender strips of flank steak on a bed of crunchy bean sprouts with a faintly hot, anise-laced sauce.
Although good toffeed apple and banana are available for dessert, fried banana is far subtler, far cheaper and far easier on the dental work. It consists of a split banana that's stuffed with sweet bean paste, closed in a thin crepe, lightly fried, and served with a bit of honey. It's a honey.