HUNAN GARDEN OF GEORGETOWN, 1201 28th St. NW., 965-6800.
Open: Seven days a week, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Reservations suggested. AE, MC, V, D. Prices: Lunch entrees $4.50-$5.95; dinner appetizers $2- $5.95, entrees $6.95-$19.95. Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip about $15 a person.
It has gone through several transformations, this edge- of-Georgetown restaurant, and this is at least the second time it has been a Chinese restaurant. Thus its prices belie its elegance; it still retains the silver-leaf wallpaper from its earlier and pricier incarnation. And the small dining rooms look more Italian than Chinese -- for good reason.
Dining is on two floors, the downstairs the more pleasant. Upstairs the carpet and candles add enough comfort, but the room is anonymous except for a carved wood screen and a lone Chinese landscape to indicate the restaurant's ethnic affiliation. On both floors the service is efficient and enthusiastic.
The menu this time around is a standard Hunan- plus array, except that it also lists 15 kinds of dim sum at lunch daily -- for a mere $1.75 to $2 per order. A few kinds of dumplings are also available at dinner, and they are likely to be the highlight of what you order. Try the steamed shrimp dumplings, for instance, and you will find for $2 four translucent pillows well stuffed with chunks of shrimp and highly peppered -- no bland stuffed noodles, these. The steamed pork dumplings, the same number for the same price, are actually pork with shrimp, coarse-cut and highly peppered, too, wrapped in a very thin noodle with the top left uncovered. At lunch and dinner there are also vegetable rolls -- delicate spring rolls with a somewhat mushy but still interesting vegetable filling -- plus chicken rolls, spring rolls, fried or steamed meat dumplings, fried won tons, shrimp toast and shrimp cakes, all of which could make a dinnertime dim sum array. The meat dumplings are larger than most, not particularly spicy, but certainly meaty. Shrimp cakes look nearly like crackers, being deep-fried bean curd skin sandwiching a thin layer of shrimp paste, a nice crunchy few bites. The lunchtime selection adds large and meaty fun gor, translucent crescents with shrimp, pork, mushrooms, water chestnuts and such minced together for the filling. Look for big, pale steamed rolls, flecked with scallions and useful for mopping up the juices of those meaty filled dumplings, and for gravy-moistened meat rolls wrapped in paper-thin soft bean pasta. All are good, generously stuffed and, if not outstanding, an impressive value nevertheless.
At dinner there are also the more usual Chinese appetizers -- spareribs, fried shrimp, roast pork and such, plus a few cold dishes, among them a mild but pleasant version of cold noodles with peanut sauce. The assortment of soups is typical, and if the hot-and-sour soup is an indication, they are boldly seasoned but not gutsy in their basic flavor.
Main dishes go on for four pages, but stay within a fairly narrow range, which doesn't reach lamb, for instance. Still, there are five kinds of duck and a dozen kinds of noodles. Monosodium glutamate will be left out of your food upon request. In general the foods are fresh and well prepared, the vegetables crisp and bright, the ingredients evenly cut, the sauces just a light wash with no starchiness. There are some clear flaws: orange beef that has pieces too large and chewy to eat easily with chopsticks, and steamed fish just a mite overcooked. But generally it is good cooking at good prices.
Steamed sea bass is perfectly fresh and charged with salty, smoky black beans and shredded vegetables to provide an aromatic counterpoint to the fish's delicacy. Twice-cooked pork is an even more dramatic interplay of pepperiness, saltiness, the faintest sweetness and the snap of ginger, with meltingly tender pork slices, fat chunks of cabbage and green pepper, and pressed bean curd's blandness balancing the strong flavors. It is a very good dish.
The most interesting dish I have tried was called Scallops Stuffed with Chili and Black Bean Sauce, which meant meatballs of pork studded with bay scallops, sauced with a brightly colored and rather fiery mince of green peppers, scallions and fermented black beans. Not only was it the hottest of my samplings, but it was the class act of the menu. Rainbow chicken looks lovely, the pale chicken shreds contrasting with thin julienne of carrot, peppers and celery, and its sauce is also pleasantly complex, but it is a dish to enjoy yet not long to remember. So would be the orange beef -- for its sweetness and hotness are also well balanced -- if not for the beef's being so clumsy to eat.
In all, the food is appealing though rarely memorable, and the peppery dishes are not likely to set you aflame. This is modestly good cooking at modest prices; two could easily dine under $25 and feast for $35. Then finish with complimentary almond cookies -- not very good ones -- and fortune cookies that are a bit bolder than the average: "Be careful tonight," said mine (which made me wish I had asked for the MSG to be left out of my dinner).
Hunan Garden of Georgetown has slid into place without much notice. It is likely to remain the kind of unnoticed Chinese restaurant that draws not adventurers, but neighbors who want to eat reasonably and decently and reliably.