CHARLIE CHIANG'S - 4250 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-966-1916. Open: Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday noon to 11 p.m., Sunday noon to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices (Sichuan menu): appetizers $2.25 to $6.95, entrees $6.95 to $33. Full dinner with beer, tax and tip about $15 to $30 per person.
TODAY I AM REVIEWING NOT A complete restaurant chain, not even a whole restaurant, but part of a restaurant -- the new "Authentic 'Sichuan' Menu" of Charlie Chiang's Connecticut Avenue branch. Even limiting myself to one part of the menu, I couldn't cover all four dozen dishes plus weekend dim sum being produced by Charlie Chiang's newly imported Sichuan chefs. But the news is that Charlie Chiang's brigade of chefs is preparing dishes not tasted before in Washington, and bringing an authenticity to familiar Sichuan dishes.
The Sichuan menu thoughtfully devotes half a page to explaining the recurrent flavor combinations and cooking styles. If you expect authentic Sichuan food to be hotter than Americanized versions, you've got it backwards. Much of this food is not hot at all, and in the hot dishes there is much going on besides heat to entertain your taste buds. Discreet uses of vinegar and sugar are as important as spicy peppercorns and fiery chilies. Like the rest of China, Sichuan dotes on ginger and garlic, bean paste and soy sauce, sesame seeds and sesame oil, scallions and mushrooms.
For people who like to play with their food, Charlie Chiang's offers a hot pot invented by master chef Wang Xie-Hua, distinctive in that it has two broths -- one spicy and one mild -- for cooking food at the table. The broths are accompanied by plates of raw ingredients -- sliced chicken breast and beef, squid, fish fillet, fresh shrimp coated with cornstarch, beef tripe, nappa cabbage and spinach leaves, translucent bean thread noodles and yellow egg noodles, soft and fried bean curd, plus tiny dishes of garlic paste and sesame oil to combine to taste. There are bowls for the broth and small gold-wire ladles for fishing out your cooked foods. The flavors are strong, the cooking is rapid, and it all makes for a lively meal. Still, these Sichuan chefs have concocted dishes more delicious than this novelty.
The half-dozen hot appetizers are all worth trying, though I warn you that the frying here tends to be greasy. That means the spring rolls and shrimp lanterns are marred, although the spring roll wrappers are particularly thin and crisp, and the filling is unusually delicate, mostly julienned carrots, bamboo shoots and white-meat chicken. Shrimp lanterns are simply fried shrimp curled into a lantern shape with -- believe it or not -- a maraschino cherry representing the flame. Forget the cherry and the grease; the shrimp themselves are delicious. Even better are spicy dumplings with thin, slippery wrappers in a nutty vinegar-spiked, sesame-seed-studded, chili-red hot broth. Sometimes the broth is too oily; usually, though, it serves as an irresistible little soup. Spareribs are smoked over rice, which imparts an interesting taste as they cook crisp-edged and tender, but at lunch they tasted as if they'd been reheated. Dan dan noodles are old standbys in Washington, but nowhere is their dark sauce more sharply seasoned, sensationally weaving hot chilies and tart vinegar with garlic, scallions and soy. Less intricate but more unusual are tiny "sandwiches" of five-flavor beef with snow peas and carrots folded in spongy, faintly sweet steamed buns. Those same very good buns are served with a gorgeous-looking whole duck.
Cold appetizers are for those with ad- venturous tastes or Sichuan heritage. Shredded beef tendon, marinated conch, hand-shredded spicy beef jerky and dry-textured slices of pork buried in a salty garlic sauce that tastes like soy-sauce jelly are not immediately lovable. Crystal duck could be, if the duck in this aspic were less mushy and bland, and qwei-wei cashews are gloriously hot with ginger but their sugar coating needs more cooking to caramelize it and crisp the nuts.
Main dishes also include some that the uninitiated will consider strange. But any fish fancier should adore the steamed whole red snapper. It is perfectly fresh, cooked just to a juicy firmness and permeated with a steaming broth that tingles with powerful pickled vegetables and Virginia ham, and is mellowed with black mushrooms and bamboo shoots.
The menu also lists steamed pompano, spicy grilled fish and double-flavored fish. There are half a dozen shellfish dishes, including Gongbao Scallops in a glossy sweet-hot sauce with wok-blackened whole chilies. While the scallops are too bland to stand up to this sauce, Jumbo Shrimp Gan-zhou Style has no such problem. These shrimp are enhanced rather than swamped by the oily red sauce littered with scallions, minced garlic and lethal slivers of red chilies, on a bed of powerfully salty and fiery pickled vegetables.
Meat dishes include an exotic and delightful Crunchy Beef Roll and Cashewnuts, the well-done, thinly sliced beef rolled around the cashews, which have the texture of chestnuts in this preparation. These little stuffed beef patties are batter-fried and tinged with a faintly vinegary, sweet-sour-hot sauce that shows what the usual Chinese sweet-sour glop should be. Poet Tai-Bai's Tender Chicken is also unexpected, the boneless, skinless chicken slices so dark and dense that they could be mistaken for duck. The chicken is molded into a mound and surrounded by bright green broccoli florets, washed with a light pepper-spiked aromatic sauce. Vegetable dishes include the hottest Ma-Po bean curd I've ever had, sprinkled with a serious dose of both black and red pepper. Mustard greens with shredded pork and noodles taste almost like an American Southern dish of greens. Our waiter warned us away from shredded potato with preserved vegetable, but he should have done so with the greasy Yuxiang Eggplant Cake.
The dim sum menu (available noon to 3 p.m., weekends only) includes many of the appetizers plus some oddly starchy dumplings and fried rolls filled with sticky rice and mere bits of chicken and fishy dried shrimp. Fried yams -- elsewhere called taro dumplings -- are good; and crumbed, fried, log-shaped Shrimp and Leek Rolls are sensational, as are delicately wrapped leek dumplings. Bean Curd Roll is stuffed with nothing but carrots and bean sprouts; it tastes like misguided health food. Among cold dim sum, Qwei-Wei Shredded Chicken is peppery and savory, much like the dan dan noodles, and Ginger-Flavored Shrimp is subtly seasoned, moist and fresh.
Sichuan cooking may seem old hat, but it is news once again. And Charlie Chiang's, long one of the many inconsis- tent but ambitious and generally good Chinese restaurants hereabouts, has taken a lead among Sichuan kitchens. .