Sichuan Garden, 1220 19th St. NW., 296-4550; Open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner seven days a week 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. AE, V, MC, DC, CB. Reservations suggested. Prices: At lunch appetizers $2 to $5.50, main dishes average $11; at dinner appetizers $2.50 to $7.50, main dishes $8.50 to $30, average $12 to $18. Full dinner with beer or wine, tax and tip about $35 to $40 a person.
THE 18 CHEFS are back in China. And the Sichuan Garden, Washington's superb mainland Chinese restaurant, has been magically transformed into just another elegant but overpriced house of stir-frying.
The restaurant was sold to a New York company, and while the dining room remains the same, the menu is revised and the waiters admit -- as the cooking verifies -- that the kitchen is newly staffed.
Gone are the tiny, fiery dumplings in hot soy sauce, and in their place are thick, mushy dough wrappers filled with anonymous meat paste. No more to be found are the sophisticated and intricately seasoned rabbit and venison or the whole fish with a light-textured, pungent sauce. Instead the menu runs the ordinary gamut of Orange Beef, General Tso's Chicken and Sweet and Sour Pork. It's not that the new Sichuan Garden is bad, but now it is merely one more Chinese restaurant. We might as well go back to spelling it Szechuan.
The dining room is still quietly distinguished, with its vastness carved into small and appealing dining areas, and it is still alone among Chinese restaurants in its quiet handsomeness, elegance and comfort.
The waiters treat their service as an art rather than a job. They present the beautifully garnished dishes before they portion them on plates or, if you prefer, set them on the table for you to serve yourself. They pour house wine -- now Joseph Phelps nonvarietals -- from bottles and show the bottle for your approval, though you may be ordering only a glass. The slightest complaint about a dish has rendered the waiter insistent on removing it and bringing a substitute. On one visit no tea was offered, but the next time the cups were refilled unfailingly (and we were reassured that tea was not an extra charge, despite what the menu said).
What sets the menu apart from those of ordinary Szechuan restaurants is the prices; a waiter told us that new menus were being printed, with perhaps even higher prices. Such expense would be warranted for outstanding food, environment and service, but not for merely decent food, which is what the Sichuan Garden has been serving lately.
Among appetizers I have found nothing outstanding but Minced Squab Soup in Bamboo Container, which is actually served in a porcelain container (it was explained that the health department has forbidden bamboo containers). This is a tiny bowl of intensely rich, clear broth with a soft dumpling of minced squab given crunch from water chestnuts. It is a deeply flavored soup and a delightful combination of textures. Among the other appetizers are Hunan Egg Rolls that are slim and crisp but without notable flavor; and Crispy Shrimp Balls, which at first bite seem admirably light, but on further tasting are starchy and insufficiently flavorful. Honeyed spareribs are pleasantly seasoned but quite sweet and have been chewy as well. And Crispy Empress Duck Pie is far from crisp, rather a heavy fried dough ball filled with anonymous soft and tasteless bits. Among cold dishes, I have had a hot and tart but otherwise unseasoned cabbage, and champagne-sauced chicken that tasted like the faintest of bon bon chicken dosed with wine to add a bitter aftertaste.
Main dishes have had somewhat more to commend them, but still inconsistently. Shrimps are jumbo-size here, and cooked nicely, which means not too much. They are served with walnuts to their advantage, though the lightly crusted shrimp -- called prawns, in this case -- are glistening with a sweet and disconcertingly red glaze. Shrimp with garlic sauce was what one would expect, but no more. There are no surprises on the menu except cassis honey ham, and pork and lamb stir-fried together, Szechuan style (even the spelling of Szechuan has reverted to the old-fashioned on this menu, putting it at odds with the restaurant's name).
Szechuan and Hunan dishes are generally only mildly fiery here; the menu invites you to request the spicing level you prefer. As for monosodium glutamate, the waiter candidly admits that it is present in broths and therefore in many dishes, though you can ask it be left out where possible.
While there is not a heavy hand with chilies here, there is often oversweetening. Spicy Crispy Whole Fish was suffocat- ing in a thick sweet and vinegary red sauce. House Special Crispy Duck had no such problem; its sauce was a pleasant homey brown gravy, its vegetales were nice fat cuts of mushrooms and such, and though the crispiness was an overstatement (the coating on the duck was heavy), it was an agreeable dish. A more simple one, stir-fried pork and lamb Szechuan style, was overcooked to dullness. And General Tso's Chicken, which two waiters recommended highly, tasted more like orange beef. Its big chunks of chicken, though lightly and crisply battered, were overcooked and stringy, and the sauce was forgettable. The best main dish I have tried? Plain bean curd, designated House Special, with scallions, garlic slices and bits of pork in a sharp and smoky black bean sauce. A dish to make the Cantonese proud.
Sichuan Garden offers an Emperor's Dinner, at $30 and up per person, but it also seems misguided, since it seems to include noththe menu.
If Szechuan Garden were in your neighborhood, you'd probably include it on your list of standbys. Its environment certainly does raise it above the crowd. And while it has quality, it does not have distinction -- and thus is priced beyond its value.