4250 Connecticut Ave. NW, plaza level at Van Ness Station Metro. 966-1916. Open Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., until 11 p.m. Friday; Saturday from noon until 11 p.m.; Sunday and holidays from noon until 10 p.m. All major credit cards (except Choice). Reservations suggested. Prices: At lunch soups and appetizers $1.25 to $5.95, entrees $4.95 to $13.95; at dinner soups and appetizers $1.25 to $8.95, entrees $5.95 to $18.95. Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip about $20 to $25 a person.
IT'S HARD TO FIND a bad Chinese restaurant. On the other hand, the food in the best ones isn't all that different from the norm. It's not as it is with French restaurants, where dining at the top means you get into exorbitant ingredients like foie gras and caviar, and labor-intensive pastry and sauce making. In Washington's Chinese restaurants, when you pay more you are generally paying for environment, location and service.
Certainly there are gradations among Chinese chefs. But even in the best of Chinese restaurants you are taking potluck. Beyond the dishes that are prepared ahead -- dumplings, soups, spring rolls and such -- you can't predict whether your fried whole fish is going to come from the least or best of the cooks.
If you are looking for a middle ground, Charlie Chiang's is a good bet. Charlie Chiang's now has three locations: the original one downtown and new ones in Alexandria and above the Van Ness Metro station. I found the Van Ness restaurant a satisfying example of getting what you pay for.
The dining room is elegant: Tables are well spaced, chairs are comfortable, and the room is clearly Chinese -- with gilt-trimmed screens and other handsome oriental decorations. It was disconcerting to see a large fish tank empty, but otherwise the room is a colorful and soothing combination of pastels.
The menu tells you a lot. It boasts that the restaurant serves no processed vegetables and that no foods are precooked. It promises to omit MSG on request and to vary the spicing of hot dishes to your taste (but in my experience that turned out to be a choice between mild or milder). The menu is long, informative and complete, covering the range of China's provinces.
The appetizer list itself is also long, but none of the items we tried were outstanding. Spareribs had a pleasant sweet-hot flavor but were unnaturally red, chewy and a stingy portion to boot. Barbecued shrimp looked promising, butterflied and reddened with spices, though skewered with pineapple and a maraschino cherry. They tasted pretty dreary. As for spicy dumplings, they weren't. Instead, they were delicate-skinned won tons with an elusive filling on a dollop of sticky, bland peanut sauce. Sesame noodles tasted more of the same lumpy, unseasoned peanut-based sauce, on a bowl of spaghetti with julienned cucumber. In fact, the single well-made appetizer I had was pan-fried meat dumplings.
Soups fared better. The hot and sour variety, though mild by Szechuan standards, had the crunch of tree ears and the tartness of vinegar, with an undertone of chili oil in a dark, glossy broth. Charlie Chiang's special fish soup was a lovely tangle of julienned ginger and pickled cabbage and shiitake mushrooms in a pleasant, though somewhat watery, fish broth.
This is a restaurant that treats fish with respect. A steamed whole fish in black bean sauce was marvelous -- not only utterly fresh and perfectly cooked, but enhanced by its dark and slightly thickened bean sauce. A fried whole fish in thick, shiny red-gold sweet-hot sauce with pine nuts was also good and well-cooked, but the sauce was too sweet, so that the delicate fish flavor was lost.
As for meat dishes, I found a spectacularly good version of orange beef, the meat naturally tender rather than boiled to tenderness as it often seems to be. This was high-quality beef cooked with some pinkness remaining, the thin shell of crust glazed with just enough sweetness and pepper-heat, the orange flavor apparent. It wasn't heavily battered, strongly peppered, overcooked or oversauced, but instead showed that exceptional contrast of texture and interplay of flavors that Chinese cooking aims for. Lamb dishes, though, were not so carefully cooked, precisely cut or deftly seasoned. The two different dishes in Lamb of Two Seasons tasted too much the same, one with plenty of scallions and the other with stingy bits of broccoli. Charlie Chiang's does make a fine mu shi pork, however, moist and smoky, with more meat than vegetable and the kind of lingering flavor that keeps drawing you back for more. Home-style bean curd, too, was uniquely good, very soft bean curd in a pool of tangy dark gravy. Was it always so good? I wondered another night when the dishes tasted one-dimensional and even Szechuan string beans were pedestrian -- and mild, though we had asked for our food to be fairly hot.
Charlie Chiang's concentrates on elegances that make sense: The food is prettily garnished with turnips or carrots carved into flowers, and hot towels are brought to refresh you at the end of the meal. It doesn't, thank goodness, forge into western flourishes such as sherbet between courses or portioning dishes for the entire table, though it advertises Sunday champagne brunch and musical photographic birthday cards.
In all, it is a straightforward restaurant that seems to concentrate on good food and good service rather than a big splash. It needs to improve its appetizers and aim to consistently produce main dishes as fine as those I had one evening. Even without that being accomplished, though, Charlie Chiang's is a good value.-- Phyllis C. Richman Worth a Detour After All
What should a restaurateur do to make up for mistreatment of a customer? Our usual answer is that there is no one appropriate compensation or apology. But Fedora Cafe, a new restaurant on Leesburg Pike, could certainly provide a model. A carryout customer ordered a pizza one Sunday afternoon, only to find that she had been given misinformation on the phone and that pizzas were not available until later. She was frustrated with having made a trip in vain, particularly after calling to make sure of the restaurant's hours. The manager not only apologized and invited her to have brunch on the house, but encouraged her to try the other carryout items without charge. The result: An angry customer turned into a booster. Sounds as if everyone won. -- Phyllis C. Richman and Carole Sugarman