CHINA REGENCY -- 3000 K St. NW. 944-4266. Open: Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to midnight. AE, CB, D, MC, V. No reservations necessary. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $1.75 to $6.95, entrees $6.95 to $28; dinner appetizers $1.95 to $8.95, entrees $7.50 to $30. Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip about $30 to $40 per person.
ou've heard this before -- in Japanese, in Spanish and in English. Another restaurant has opened at Washington Harbour, and it is a beauty. But not much of its taste is culinary.
This time it is Chinese. And it is even more beautiful than the harbor's other restaurants (I expect to get some arguments from Potomac fans, but countless tiny jeweled lights and a 49-color carpet do not necessarily add up to beauty on my scale).
What's more, unlike the other new luxurious Chinese restaurants in town, China Regency is decorated in a traditional oriental style. It couldn't, with the flick of a menu, turn itself into an Italian or French dining room -- it is proudly, stunningly Chinese. The dining rooms are edged in, lined with and divided by opulent carved rosewood. Wall decorations are Chinese artistic treasures. Chairs are black lacquer. From the front tables you can overlook the dancing fountain of Washington Harbour; the rear rooms feel more formal. In all there is a sense of serenity and space.
Service is formal. Waiters in black tie present each dish for you to admire its arrangement -- even the simplest stir- fried dish is garnished with a rose carved out of a turnip or a spray of carrot flowers. The Peking duck is set in a tableau of turnip bird on scallion legs with a garden of vegetable flowers at its feet. Other Chinese restaurants set a vegetable flower on the plate; China Regency outdistances them with a whole bouquet.
This restaurant has so many waiters that sometimes they have outnumbered the diners. So the service is plentiful and enthusiastic, though not necessarily knowledgeable. Maybe it is a matter of communication rather than knowledge, but it has been hard to get a useful description of some of the vaguely defined menu terms, such as Chicken Soong, or to find out the difference between plain dumplings and the House Special Dumplings. And while other such luxurious Chinese restaurants typically offer orange slices and fortune cookies automatically for dessert, at China Regency the waiter has merely plunked down a plate of fortune cookies with the check and announced, "Here are your fortune cookies."
Yes, the environment is the thing at China Regency. The menu is standard, though it is divided into exclamatories such as "House Specialties" and "Gourmet Favorites." Little of it rises above the norm.
Among the appetizers, some of the dumplings look particularly grand. Seafood dim sum are folded into tiny compartments that decoratively show their bits of filling, and they are attractively presented in bamboo steamers. Even so, their dough wrappers are heavy and their fillings underseasoned. The House Special Dumplings taste better, their thin, slick wrappers enclosing minced pork and shrimp and topped with a slightly sweet and faintly hot peanut sauce. But their filling, too, lacked seasoning on occasion. The same flaw turned light, crunchy and grease-free seafood rolls into a bland few bites. And fried squid, though its coating was a delicious nutty crunch, had no intrinsic flavor of squid.
The only hot appetizer I tried that had a taste to remember was Chicken Soong, which turned out to be minced chicken with red bell peppers and pine nuts slightly moistened with a bit of glossy sauce, to wrap in lettuce leaves -- a dish that many restaurants serve nowadays under other names. Cold appetizers had more zest to them, the sweet and spicy cabbage tingling though not particularly hot, the spiced beef full flavored, the jellyfish a nice balance between sweet and tangy. Cold noodles in spicy sauce was merely savory rather than spicy, but it was pleasant, with good wiry noodles in a smooth sesame-based sauce.
China Regency touts Peking duck as its specialty, and wisely so. The duck is magnificently presented and deftly carved at the table; the meat is juicy and the skin is perfectly crisp. This is a flawless bird, but it has only enough meat to wrap in four pancakes with the leg bones left over for nibbling. At $30 for a duck, that makes for a pricey few mouthfuls. And don't assume that if the Peking duck is so good, the other duck dishes will follow suit. The marinated duck was fatty and pallid, the crispy duck dried out and greasy, with very little meat on the bones and even less flavor to the meat.
And the news gets worse. The best of the main dishes I tried were agreeable but not wonderful. Veal Hunan-style was high-quality meat, carefully stir-fried so the meat was juicy and flavorful, and it contrasted nicely with the cubed red pimento. The seasoning was balanced, but if you were expecting Hunan fire, the faintness of the peppercorns would be a disappointment. Sesame chicken on one visit was prettily julienned and quickly cooked, seasoned for the timid but not notably flawed. Another day the chicken was watery in its bland brown wash of sauce. Orange beef showed its inconsistency in a single visit -- some chunks of meat were juicy, others dry. And its Szechuan fire was only a dream.
In all, the food has started with ingredients carefully minced and sliced, with contrasting colors combined to look appealing. The seasoning is almost invariably faint, though, more like a tearoom version of Chinese cooking. Furthermore, for this rather expensive food -- many of the main dishes cost $15 or more -- the ingredients are not luxurious. Broccoli, peppers, carrots and canned mushrooms are the mainstay of the vegetables. Nothing more glamorous than you would find at a neighborhood Chinese restaurant. And even the luxurious dishes have been pedestrian. Lobster, for instance, at $22.95, was small pieces of tasteless seafood taken out of the shell and drowned in a sea of utterly boring translucent sauce without even the flavor provided by the usual neighborhood-restaurant frozen peas and carrots.
Any restaurant that goes to the trouble to make those beautiful and intricate dumplings must have more talent in the kitchen than I was finding, I figured. So I tried ordering a banquet, which usually shows off the kitchen at its best. Instead, it confirmed my earlier impressions. The cold plate, $30 extra for a showpiece of assorted cold appetizers, was not a cunning phoenix or dragon fashioned from meats and vegetables -- it was a slapdash arrangement of standard menu items, some of them good. Steamed fish tasted as washed out as the lobster had earlier, and its sauce added little flavor. Saute'ed shrimp and batter-fried soft-shell crabs were accurately cooked, plump and juicy, but again had no distinction in their basic flavor or seasoning. The rest of the meal was not even up to their standard. It is a sad banquet where the best dishes are cold cuts and dessert -- an array of honeydew, loquats and litchis. Service was attentive to a fault -- in other words, often overbearing. Yet nobody offered tea.
We didn't try the 10-course Imperial Banquet for $50 per person, which the menu calls "A Banquet Your Guests Will Never Forget." My guests have already forgotten ours. ::