YANYU -- 3435 CONNECTICUT AVE. NW. 202-686-6968. Open: for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. No smoking. Appetizers $5 to $25, entrees $12 to $32. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $40 to $55 per person.
If Yanyu were Chez Yan, its prices wouldn't be an issue. When a restaurant is French, we accept the necessity of paying for fancy ingredients, costly linens and tableware, and the salary of a professional chef. But Yanyu is Asian, so people expect it to be inexpensive, even though its environment is luxurious and its ingredients run to shark's fin, free-range chicken, sea cucumber and lobster. Its Peking duck is the most glamorous you'll find within half a day's drive; under the circumstances, $32 for an entire bird shouldn't make a diner bat an eye. What's more, Yanyu has a chef, Jessie Yan, who's paid her dues at less expensive restaurants here -- Oodles Noodles and Spices -- and is now aiming for the top.
Dinner at Yanyu can suit either of two moods. Downstairs, the wedge-shaped dining room is surrounded by windows, and the atmosphere is lively. Upstairs, curved banquettes are wrapped in leather and sand-colored fabric printed with Japanese calligraphy; imperial portraits are painted on the angled walls. The room is intimate, with a quiet electricity.
The servers' understanding of the dishes is thorough. You feel you're in good hands. And the serving dishes, handmade and brought from Japan, are a panorama of studio pottery techniques. This is a restaurant poised to be important.
Yanyu's menu is pan-Asian, dominated by seafood. Fourteen entrees showcase lobster, giant shrimp, eel and steamed, smoked or fried fish. Mixed seafood is either stir-fried or tempura-style. There's a vegetarian stir-fry in a basket of fried taro root, while meat eaters can choose from entrees of fried pork, steak and two fabulous birds, either that duck or an extraordinary roast chicken.
Although several of the entrees are dazzling, you might be tempted to linger exclusively among the appetizers. For two or more people, the most dramatic first course is the Big Plate, a lacquered bowl the size of a turkey platter with compartments holding four kinds of dumplings and prawn satay. Ordering a la carte, though, allows you to concentrate on the best: The lily bulb dumplings are filled with diced chicken, shrimp and crunchy vegetables; their transparent egg sauce is a refined version of the gluey lobster sauce found in old Chinese-American restaurants. Yu rolls are thin cigars of fried egg-roll skin wrapped around sea bass and shiitakes. And little dragon buns, elsewhere known as soup dumplings, spurt broth when you bite through the soft dough to the shrimp and pork inside.
With such possibilities, there's no need to bother with the tasteless lobster garden rolls or forgettable vegetable dumplings. Firefly calamari shows Yanyu's stunningly crisp and greaseless frying, but its blandness is highlighted rather than overcome by a sugared lemon dip. Seven-flavor ribs revel in all those seasonings, but suffer from being served cold and gray. Besides, the minimalist portion of four ribs is artistic but skimpy. Tuna tataki salad is more generously portioned, though the fish gets lost in the mountain of greens. A shredded salad of tropical vegetables and peanuts wears better.
Two extravagances among the appetizers are abalone, rubbery little nubbins the texture of chewy well-done liver, and shark's fin and crab soup in a stock made with imported Yunnan ham, a rich brown broth that grows better as you eat it. But then I also admire the subtle yet fiery hot-and-sour soup, at one-third the price of the shark's fin.
Entrees demand tough decisions, unless you bring a big party of diners who like to share. The Peking duck is more than a meal for two, presented whole with a footed bowl of hoisin sauce and a lacquered box of pancakes and fixings. Not only is the skin crackling-crisp and virtually fat-free, the duck meat is so well seasoned that it's a joy to eat on its own.
But how could you pass up the kung pao roast chicken? This free-range bird is cooked much like the duck, so that its skin, too, is shiny, thin and crackly. The white meat beneath is so soft and moist, it tastes like a chicken version of Kobe beef. The kung pao vegetables with peanuts and red chilies appear as a stir-fry alongside.
Steak sounds pedestrian in such company, but I'd take along extra guests if only to justify also ordering Yanyu's toban steak. Thick chunks of surprisingly flavorful filet are seared and served with soy-ginger sauce and crisp fried garlic. It's awkward to eat with chopsticks, but worth the struggle.
Most of the seafood entrees are familiar Chinese preparations ratcheted up a notch. Crisp garlic shrimp is like salt-baked shrimp, but with the giant crustaceans peeled and buried in minced garlic fried until it's been tamed. Sea bass is fried whole, Sichuan-style, though less hot, and the usual steamed fish fillets are here Chilean sea bass. More fascinating is Shanghai smoked fish, a thick chunk of roasted cod that has the meltingly soft texture of sablefish. Seafood in a taro basket has a basket worth eating on its own, and the seafood is top-quality, with sensational vegetables -- fresh lotus root, shiitakes, sugar snap peas -- in large pieces; the vegetarian version comes with tofu rather than seafood.
Lobster is cooked in the shell to its sweetest moment and glazed with sake, ginger and garlic, then served with a boring rendition of fried rice. That should warn you against the underwhelming entree of eel fried rice, but it won't prepare you for the most disappointing dish, lobster pad thai. This is a snazzy presentation, wrapped in a veil of omelet and tied with a ribbon of scallion, but the lobster is dry and the rice noodles are sweet and vapid. Style has triumphed over substance.
Desserts include Chinese taro-filled pastries in a flaky shredded dough akin to Italy's sfogliatelle, a faintly gingered version of France's creme brulee, Thailand's sticky rice with mango, and that old standby of Americanized Chinese restaurants, ice cream. This is not just a dish of frozen green or white, but a covered lacquered box hiding three compartments, one with coconut, another with ginger and a third with green-tea ice cream, oddly herbal and pleasantly undersweetened. Seven dollars for ice cream in a Chinese restaurant? Look at it this way: Yanyu serves three portions of ice cream in a presentation worthy of Michelin stars. And it costs only $7.
It's not that the first customers drank a lot; rather, the press release from Marcel's restaurant got it wrong. It bragged that this new restaurant had a 200,000-bottle cellar, and I repeated that here on June 27. As of early this month, the actual count was 7,422 bottles, said chef Robert Wiedmaier.
Also to set the record straight: The Peacock Bistro -- which was mentioned in my July 11 review of its older sibling, the Peacock Cafe -- has been closed since the spring. -- P.C.R.