IN THE EVER-INTENSIFYING upscale Chinese restaurant competition, the diner is bound to be the winner. And House of Kao is a case in point. Whatever its flaws, it serves a generally fine Chinese dinner quite elegantly at prices that are not much higher than those at less attractive Chinese restaurants.
The dining is on two floors, the upstairs divided into smaller dining rooms. All of them are lovely, with silky polished wood, plush banquettes and handsome print fabrics on the windows. The rooms are separated by etched glass dividers. It is a sumptuous restaurant but not particularly oriental.
The service begins graciously with tiny orchid corsages for the women (at least this practice was in effect in the early months) and damp cloths for your hands. It also continues graciously. The waiters, in black tie, are suave and witty as well as expert. The only glitch I found in my several visits was that it was hard to get chopsticks.
Like the waiters at the Hunan Rose (which was reviewed last week), those at the House of Kao automatically apportion dishes for everyone at the table unless you are quick enough to insist on doing it yourself. But unlike the Hunan Rose staff, they don't overfill the plates; they arrange portions attractively, then leave the platters on the table so that diners may refill their plates themselves. Thus the food looks beautiful not only on the platter (with carved radishes and parsley) but also on each plate, which is the point.
For such glamorous surroundings, the prices are moderate; many dishes are $8 or $9, and the chef's suggestions average $11 to $15 at dinner. The menu is long, with the dishes we have come to expect from the House of Hunan and its offspring.
To start, there are Lovers' Dumplings -- delicate noodle-wrapped minced pork open at the top and prettily garnished -- and Dimpled Dumplings, which are quite light and beautifully seasoned. Shrimp balls here are heavy but taste clearly of shrimp and are crisply fried. And the chicken curl (minced chicken and vegetables) or vegetable curl (minced vegetables) are immaculately diced chicken and vegetables, wrapped in lettuce.
But I'd start with the honeyed pecans -- faintly sweet and fried to an aromatic crunch -- and one of the bathtub-size Polynesian drinks. Then, if you are inclined toward soup, try the squab and scallop, a haunting broth with light dumplings of the minced squab and scallops. Won ton soup has elegantly fashioned won tons, but the broth is wan; and the hot and sour soup also lacks depth of flavor.
The choice of main dishes is difficult, for among the chef's suggestions alone I could find 10 I wouldn't want to miss -- once I waded through ridiculous names such as Tangy Neptune Combo. And as far as I could tell, the crucial matter is choosing the right day rather than the right dish. One evening all might be exceptional; another evening the sauces might lack definition, the fish might be all crunch because it was fried too long, and its sauce might be sweet and gummy. I have liked the Willow Prawns, the large juicy shrimp cooked perfectly and sauced with ginger, red peppers and scallions. Tofu dishes have been a delightful blend of spicy sauce with the soft, bland bean curd. And Sesame Beef is a delicious variation on the method used for beef with orange peel: In this case, it is excellent tender sliced beef, fried in the thinnest shell of crunchy batter and sesame seeds, then tossed with a sweet-hot glaze. Having a soupy Tangy Lamb Duet another night and that dreadful overbattered, overcooked and intensely sweet Crown Palace Fish made me wonder if it was the chef's night off. For that dish I would head instead to the Hunan Rose.
Like the Hunan Rose, the House of Kao serves fluffy, gooey-looking European whipped cream tortes for dessert, which serves only to remind that dessert is virtually irrelevant in a Chinese meal. The more appropriate finish is tea, brought in fat rosy little porcelain pots.
House of Kao has an inconsistent kitchen, but one that is capable of fine cooking. It also has consistently smooth and comfortable service, a personable antidote to the superscale high-rise mega-Metro neighborhood where you will find it.