The baton is being passed. Downtown's Chinatown recently lost a whole row of restaurants -- including its best -- while the suburbs have strengthened their position as the centers of dining Chinese-style.
New Chinese-style, that is. Case study for today: Fortune, an 11-year-old Chinese seafood restaurant in Falls Church with a newer branch in Reston. Three months ago the original Fortune moved to Arlington Boulevard from Leesburg Pike (the old space is now Maxim Palace, though the signs might not yet have been changed). It's bigger than ever, a one-stop, all-purpose Chinese dining extravaganza. It sprawls across Seven Corners Center, with a Home Depot to the east and a Barnes & Noble to the west. It's big enough to stand up to both neighbors; Fortune, even leaving room for a dance floor, can seat at least 400 people at a time.
It often does, too. Room-size banquets are booked for Saturday nights throughout the foreseeable future. For weekend dim sum brunches, you'll probably have to take a number, and the rear of the dining room looks like a factory, with its staging area of stacks of white cardboard boxes ready for carryout and doggie bags. Efficiency is this restaurant's middle name.
Seven Corners might look like a white-bread suburban center, but behind Fortune's doors is a vast lavender space, nearly too long to see end to end, festooned with crystal chandeliers and Austrian drapes. In tanks along the entry hall Dungeness crabs swim beside Maine lobsters. Afternoons, dim sum service perfumes the air with aromas of shark's fin dumplings and deep-fried sesame balls with lotus seed paste.
This is the new, pan-ethnic suburban America. Tables are packed with families of six or eight, from grannies to babies. People come in flip-flops, sneakers and sandals, shorts, jeans and baseball caps; there are even a few kiddies in bathing suits. The air is filled with chatter in Chinese as well as English; indeed, it is hard to think of a group that's not represented in Fortune's dining room at weekend lunch.
The reason is dim sum. Waiters in black bow ties roam the dining room looking after individual needs, while waitresses in dress-up black pants or dress-down jeans roll steam-heated stainless steel carts laden with countless steamed, baked, deep-fried and pan-fried dumplings.
The carts come in a continuous stream, and the waitresses are patient about lifting every lid and describing every delicacy. More than 30 kinds of dim sum pass by a table in barely 30 minutes, and that's less than half of what's available. The dim sum menu lists 70 different offerings, not including the fried oysters, fried squid and bean curd soup I saw in just the first run one Saturday.
Here comes har gow, mild chopped shrimp in thin, glossy noodle wrappers. Next are translucent bonnets of scallop dumplings, their filling tasting a little too much like the shrimp. The seafood flavor is bolder in walnut-size fried shrimp-and-crab fritters, and they're soft as marshmallows.
These dim sum are not fabulous one by one; in fact, they're a little bland, a mite pasty, their wrappers sometimes doughy. But you hardly notice as you reel in the stunning variety. If the shrimp-stuffed tofu needs more shrimp and the pot stickers seem thick-skinned and tough, it's hard to get exercised about that, not when the light, puffy baked pork bao follow hard on their heels. So what if you'd like more salt and chilies on the salt-baked shrimp -- or you wish they were less dry? They are hot and crunchy and have a full, fresh shrimp flavor. In such abundance -- eight kinds of steamed dumplings, deep-fried dumplings of taro or curry pork or chicken, a zillion little plates of noodles or vegetables or shellfish in sauces or roasted meats -- your senses are not likely to complain of blandness or underseasoning.
You can order from a printed menu if you'd like, or at least appreciate reading the poetry of "hot tofu, served with sugar" or "assorted meat with sweet rice in lotus leaves." And for a mere $3.50 you can venture into such unlikely possibilities as boiled sliced pork leg or jellyfish. (At dinner, a Dungeness crab costs $20; you can sample it as dim sum for $5.50.) I've never heard of anyone leaving a dim sum lunch hungry. Or significantly poorer.
The dim sum menu is minimalist compared with the dinner menu, but unfortunately the latter doesn't give you the same opportunity to look before you buy. Fortune has a seven-page listing of such exotica as boiled or sauteed geoduck clams, sea cucumbers, abalone and conch, plus all the everyday shellfish. Its whole fish -- flounder, red snapper, grouper -- come steamed Cantonese-style or fried Hunan- or Mandarin-style. You can find three variations on roast chicken, five duck preparations, and hot pots of diced salt fish with chicken and bean curd or beef brisket with curry or turnips. You can order scallops and shrimp in a hollowed-out cantaloupe or diced and wrapped in a beggar's purse made from a filmy egg-white pancake.
In fact, that seafood in egg-white wrap is one you should order. It could use more seasoning, but it's succulent with bits of vegetable crunch and prettily surrounded by broccoli florets. The only dish I've liked better is an appetizer of stuffed crab claws with shrimp paste, which look like pink softballs and taste like shrimp mousse. The cantaloupe seafood is luscious at first bite, but then shows itself as a starchy swamp.
Variety is the big draw here. The fried fish has been fried too long, and Hunan dishes should be heavier on the chilies and lighter on the sugar than they are here. The soft-shell crabs are juicy and plump but weighty with batter. A hot pot of eggplant with diced chicken and salted fish approaches you with a wonderful earthy aroma, but the chicken must have been cooked ahead to taste so dry and spongy. The hot-and-sour soup tells it all: The first spoonful is hot both ways and waves a pungent aroma in your direction. A few spoonfuls later, you realize the broth has no depth and the shreds of solid meat or vegetable are few. The enticement is all veneer.
But then, this is not a mom-and-pop ethnic restaurant cooking family recipes. It has 400 seats and seven pages of menu plus 70 kinds of dim sum. Given that, it's a pretty impressive enterprise -- the Barnes & Noble of Chinese restaurants.
FORTUNE OF SEVEN CORNERS -- 6249 SEVEN CORNERS CENTER, ON ARLINGTON BLVD., FALLS CHURCH. 703-538-3333. Open: Sunday through Thursday 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; lunch menu and dim sum daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. D, MC, V. Reservations accepted weekdays only. Separate smoking area weekdays only; no smoking weekends. Prices: lunch appetizers $1.25 to $4.50, entrees $4.50 to $7.25; dim sum $1.95 to $5.50; dinner appetizers $1.25 to $13, entrees $6.25 to $36. Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip $15 to $40 per person.