DON'T JUMP TO CONCLUSIONS. Yes, this is a Szechuan restaurant, but even more it is a Taiwanese restaurant, probably the only one around Washington. The kitchen has two teams of seven chefs, one team for each cuisine, said the maitre d', and a two-page plastic-coated menu of Taiwanese dishes to accompany the eight-page Szechuan menu.
What is Taiwanese food? Even after four visits to the Szechuan Gallery I can't answer, nor could the restaurant's staff. But the Taiwanese food at this restaurant tastes like Cantonese food intensified: The gravies have more depth, the ginger and five-spice powder is more prominent, the tastes and cooking style are familiar but writ bold.
And this particular Taiwanese food includes ingredients and dishes quite exotic for a Washington menu. Tiny fresh duck tongues, dozens of them, are smoked and stir-fried with baby corn, straw mushrooms and pickled vegetables. Duck blood is made into a dark red, rather bland custard-textured concoction called duck red, and served in a soup with sour cabbage (only Saturday and Sunday) or with Chinese leeks. The Taiwanese menu lists three pork intestine dishes and nine squid dishes, three of them with dried squid.
Don't be put off by this listing; there is plenty for the squeamish as well. Simple shredded beef with spinach is wonderful, the julienned beef tender and juicy, the leaf spinach firm and fresh, the sauce light and full of flavor. For a little more adventurousness, though, you can be rewarded with an appetizer such as baby fish with peanuts, the very tiny fish crisply fried and the peanuts highly seasoned. Have you ever tried jellyfish? It is like bland, clear, crunchy shredded cabbage salad, and at the Szechuan Gallery it is delicately peppered and slightly vinegary. Another cold appetizer, Oriental Conch, is a handsome display of halved baby conches tossed with refreshing sweet-tangy tomato dressing and surrounded by beautiful little curlicued shells. And if you are inclined to taste 1,000-year-old eggs, this is the place to try them, arranged around the softest, freshest bean curd.
Another appetizer of special character -- not on the menu but usually available -- is shrimp rolls. The same shrimp paste used for shrimp toast -- fluffy and delicate, spiked with those Chinese leeks -- is rolled into cylinders, lightly breaded and deep fried. Or on Saturdays and Sundays you could start with one of the special soups: Squid with Golden Mushroom has curls of crosshatched squid, pale beige mushrooms and a lovely deep flavor. Sour cabbage soup, a thin broth with bursts of pickled cabbage, is served with tripe or duck red.
And any day I would suggest you skip the familiar appetizers -- ordinary hot and sour soup, dreary components on a puu puu tray, soggy fried squid balls -- but certainly order the meat dumplings. They are as fine as any meat dumplings I have encountered around here.
The staff at Szechuan Gallery is very friendly and enthusiastic, but some of them are not fluent in English. So service can be awkward unless you are sure you have made yourself understood. And I wouldn't depend on the staff to recommend dishes. The maitre d' strongly suggests you order Salty & Spicy Shrimp in Shell, which is pretty good, but not as delectable and juicy as I have had it elsewhere. The salty duck he steered us to was fatty and unexciting steamed duck, and the weekend special, Beef with Noodle Soup, was ordinary. Chow fun -- wide rice noodles with various meats or seafood, bean sprouts, scallions and the like -- was potentially wonderful homey food left bland by these chefs; I'd save that, too, for a Cantonese restaurant.
While there is some delectable food at the Szechuan Gallery, the kitchen has plenty of pitfalls. Lunch seems to be one. Although the stir-fried asparagus were superb one day at lunch, the Shrimp and Scallops in Hot Sauce were overcooked, more sweet than hot, while at dinner they were perfectly cooked. Macadamia chicken at lunch was mushy, salty chicken meat that didn't taste freshly cooked, and yu ling duck was clearly reheated, dry and stringy as well as excessively fatty.
No such problems appeared at dinner, whether on the Szechuan or Taiwanese menu. I wouldn't order lobster again, for it was more fibrous than succulent in texture, but it was a magnificent presentation with the emptied shell and carved vegetables decorating the platter, and a sweet-tangy ginger-spiked sauce. House Special Crispy Whole Fish had the opposite problem: The fish was utterly fresh and beautifully fried but the sweet-hot sauce was excessive and a bit too thick and sweet.
The menu is enormous and varied, so choices are difficult but two more Taiwanese dishes are worth considering. Beef with Dry Bean Curd and Coriander has all the ingredients julienned and combined into an intriguing medley of tastes -- smoky dry bean curd, spicy pepper, earthy coriander. And House Special Crispy Roll, though nothing like what it sounds, is subtly compelling. A metal pot comes filled with sliced stewed squid -- neither crisp nor rolled -- in a sauce that turns out to be squid roe with the rich fragrance of five-spice powder and sesame oil.
For the tour de force of the kitchen, call a day ahead: Chef's Gourmet Pot, it is called, and it costs $20 for a large ceramic pot bound in wire and steamed for hours before your arrival. This is a broth thick with more than a dozen ingredients, as exotic as abalone and shark's fin, as familiar as chicken and spareribs. Pigs' feet give it body; ginseng, black mushrooms and dried scallops give it intense, mysterious flavor; Chinese sweet potatoes and chestnuts give it texture. The Chinese consider this richly endowed soup a restorative and serve it as the last course in the meal. While not for every Western taste, it is a most extraordinary version of a boiled dinner.
Szechuan Gallery is more decorative than most Chinatown restaurants, with tufted leatherette booths and wood tables thickly laminated with clear plastic. The restaurant aims at some elegance, though the mood -- and often the patrons' dress -- is comfortable and casual.
Thus a balance is struck. Szechuan Gallery can be suitable for a special evening or an ordinary one, can serve Szechuan heat or Taiwanese mellowness, and all at quite modest prices. It certainly enhances Chinatown dining.