CHEF PEKING -- 5541 Nicholson La., Rockville. 468-0011. Open: Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non- smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $1 to $4, entrees $3.50 to $5.25; dinner appetizers $1.95 to $7, entrees $5.50 to $14.50. Full dinner with beer or wine, tax and tip about $23 to $30 per person.
here I'm out on a quiet spree, fighting vainly the old ennui . . ." Those wonderful, angst-filled Cole Porter lyrics capture what we feel eating in most Chinese restaurants these days. Just reading that same old roster of dishes, from orange-flavor beef to moo shi pork, is enough to give anyone an advanced case of ennui. We're always searching Chinese menus for something different, some hint of innovation, but by the last page -- the inevitable house special fried rice, litchi nuts, toffee banana -- we're ready to give up and order lo mein.
But we're always hopeful, always looking for that rare Chinese restaurant that dares to play some imaginative variations on the standard themes. We found such a place at Chef Peking, which serves a few wonderful dishes rarely seen elsewhere, and these alone make this restaurant worth investigating. (But don't expect nouvelle Chinese cuisine. This is Rockville, remember, not Los Angeles, so you won't get raspberry vinegar on your spring rolls.) Beyond the innovations, even the ordinary items are carried off with exceptional flair and finesse.
The building that houses Chef Peking is no stranger to Chinese restaurants. For years it was home to Pine and Bamboo, then, for a relatively brief time, to Beijing Garden. It's a big, white- Mark and Gail Barnett are free-lance restaurant critics. Phyllis C. Richman is on assignment. walled, second-story dining room, an airy place with high windows overlooking the street, soft lights and comfortable seating -- not an exceptionally snazzy- looking restaurant but pleasant and inviting.
Since the menu is extensive, we'll focus on the more unusual dishes. One of them is crispy squid, perhaps the most formidable appetizer in the house, a mammoth portion (and a bargain at $3.95) beautifully prepared and presented. The barely battered squid -- tender, buttery-textured and perfectly fresh -- is lightly fried and served with whole chunks of fresh ginger and garlic and a sprinkle of dried red pepper. (Squid seems particularly well handled here -- the kang pao squid entree is a flawless rendition, a must for calamari fans.) Just as outstanding in its own quiet way is chicken with shredded bean sheet, a cold appetizer that combines strips of chicken, cucumber and bean sheet (which resembles flat egg noodles) with a mild, peanuty sauce zipped with a bit of smoky sesame oil. Tossed at the table like pasta, the combination yields a subtle confluence of flavors and textures that recalls some Thai noodle dishes.
Although less unusual, another gently flavored, cold appetizer that's done very well is the smoked vegetable roll, coated with a thin, faintly sweet, smoky sauce. Still another is lettuce-wrapped chicken, the meat rolled in lettuce leaves at the table and eaten moo-shi style. Among the more common appetizers, the steamed dumplings are exceptionally good, as is the anise-laced smoked fish. So is the shrimp toast -- puffy, plump and packed with shrimp rather than egg white. High marks, too, for the crackly, shrimp-laden spring rolls, compromised only by a tendency to oiliness.
Good as the appetizers are, the shining lights at Chef Peking are to be found among the entrees. Shing crisp duck, for example, is a singular jewel, as fat-free a duck as we've seen, with a crackly skin and succulent meat sparked but not overwhelmed by anise. On the side is a big bowl of lovely, pungent sauce for dipping. An even more remarkable dish is lotus-wrapped rice, in which lotus leaves are used to bind and steam a mound of feathery, exquisitely tender rice combined with shrimp, eggs and shredded roast pork. The whole thing hasn't a trace of oiliness -- imagine a classy, very refined variation on fried rice and you've got the idea. (If you order the lotus-wrapped rice with the shing duck, you can spoon some of that lovely duck sauce onto the rice for a marvelous combination of flavors.) Still another triumph is eight-treasure braised duck, so tender that the waiter can separate the meat from the bones at the table with just a few gentle shakes of a serving spoon.
Szechuan hot spicy pot is an immense and immensely likable country dish, a great choice for a cold winter's night (think of it as China's answer to cassoulet). Enough to serve two, it comes in a big, covered ceramic pot packed with chicken, shrimp, bean curd and vegetables in a robust, aromatic sauce that's just peppery enough to clear the sinuses. Cellophane noodles lend a certain entertainment value to this dish: There is no utensil known to man that will transfer them easily from serving bowl to plate. The hot pot is another dynamite combination with the lotus- wrapped rice (and a low-calorie one at that). Another top-notch choice is pork chop in a pleasant brown sauce mild enough to flatter the meat but with a nice, peppery after-kick. Oysters have been very good here. If you like to really taste them, have the sizzling oyster dish, in which the sauce is almost an oyster broth. Chef's bean curd consists of remarkably airy, golf-ball-size spheres of a pure'ed bean curd-shrimp-scallop mixture, lightly deep-fried. This is a clever, subtle dish, perhaps too bland as a solo entree but good to share. There's a similar pure'e in the stuffed mushroom dish, topped with a slightly smoky black-bean sauce -- again, best for sharing.
The fried noodle dishes are excellent: big-portioned, robustly flavored and not over-oily. But the champion noodle creation here, and at $5.50 the sleeper bargain on this menu, is the Singapore- style rice noodles, a gargantuan mound of tender noodles with shrimp, roast pork, egg, crunchy vegetables and just enough curry flavor for a little added zing. A happy, homey dish if there ever was one.
A couple of the unusual items didn't quite work for us: We found the paper-wrapped chicken bland and uninteresting, and the chef's chicken overpowered by a thick, stridently flavored sauce.
The dizzying profusion of Chinese restaurants in the Washington suburbs shows no sign of letting up. Amid all that sameness, Chef Peking stands out as one of the few places that aren't just clones of one another. Its duck and squid dishes alone would be enough to make it distinctive. Consider the rest of the menu a joyful bonus. ::