* (1 star) Grace Bamboo
3206 Grace St. NW (near Wisconsin Avenue)
Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 3 to 11 p.m., Friday 3 p.m. to midnight, Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight, Sunday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. AE, MC, V. No smoking. Not wheelchair accessible. Prices: appetizers $2.50 to $6.50; lunch entrees $5.95 to $28; dinner entrees $7.95 to $28. Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip about $40 per person.
Too many local chinese restaurants are trapped in one of two design categories. One school of thought emphasizes bare walls and paper place mats, the other cloth napkins and carved dragons. The props are as predictable as hot-and-sour soup and fortune cookies.
Grace Bamboo bucks both notions, managing to seem neither spartan nor ornate. Indeed, the restaurant, hidden on a side street in lower Georgetown, looks so much like one of the area's many fetching Thai restaurants that on one visit, I made the slip of asking for the Thai beer Singha when I meant the Chinese Tsingtao.
True to its name, dry bamboo marches along the walls, and fresh bamboo sprouts in place of flowers from slender vases on the tables. Splashes of pink and yellow paint add cheerful accents, while the mirror-tiled ceiling suggests Las Vegas. Mariah Carey is apt to be singing in the background. The dining room is not very big, but it manages to pack in plenty of style. If you excuse the table for two that looks straight into the back of a booth, it's clear that someone cares about your comfort here.
That someone is Wai Li Chan, assisted by several relatives. Grace Bamboo represents the third in the restaurateur's modest collection of places to eat in the area, after Hunan Hut in Hyattsville and Panda Cafe in the Old Post Office Pavilion downtown.
Grace Bamboo is not the place to test your internal fire alarms or to be adventurous.
Instead, it is a perfectly respectable purveyor of dishes that most diners will recognize -- and many will enjoy. So don't go looking for tripe in a blaze of chilies, or plates of ducks' tongues. With a few exceptions, this kitchen is more about the tame and the familiar.
Plenty of Chinese restaurants put out shrimp toast and barbecued ribs. This one does those starters a bit better than most. The first -- a crisp pillow, and light as can be -- shows off good frying. The second consists of meaty ribs brushed with a pleasantly sweet barbecue sauce. Steamed dumplings suffer from dough that's too thick, but if you remove it, you're left with quite good meatballs (try pork seasoned with scallions and more). Better: piping hot spring rolls filled with cabbage, carrot and mushrooms. These fat cigars are so crisp they shatter between your teeth. Crab Rangoon, in contrast, is more starchy packaging than seafood filling and is as boring as the fortune cookies here. ("Work hard and you will become more wealthy," read one. Uh, thanks for the sage advice.) And crab and corn soup should be renamed "egg-white-with-essence-of-crab and corn soup."
Still, there's more to like here than to lament. The heat of summer might have you panting for something refreshing; relief arrives in ribbons of jellyfish over julienned cucumber and carrot, electric with lime juice. The salad is cool and gently crunchy, the jellyfish nicely seasoned with sesame oil.
The usual Chinese dishes are all present and accounted for at Grace Bamboo. Sweet-and-sour pork? It's here, though its flavor tilts toward sugar over tanginess. Kung pao chicken? It might not make you tear up, but it has sufficient kick, and its plum sauce is made in house. Shrimp with honeyed walnuts? The batter-cloaked shrimp are nice and tender, framed by broccoli florets, showered with candied nuts and lapped by a light and subtle sauce. Of the half-dozen noodle dishes, I'm won over by the
Singapore rice noodles. This entree combines thin and wiry noodles with a handful of shrimp, pork and chicken and a curry sauce that is admirably restrained -- a poke rather than a punch. Stir-fried spinach makes a fine side dish, simultaneously smoky and rich with sauteed garlic. You wouldn't have to be Popeye to polish off this heaping helping of greens.
Indeed, the kitchen is generous, offering a small mountain of shaved lamb and soft onions in its entree of Mongolian lamb and a fistful of tender beef in its beef noodle soup, which -- crammed with bok choy, mushrooms, thin noodles and lots of tender beef strips -- skews more solid than liquid. ("Would you like more broth?" an observant server inquired.) Infused with red chilies, the soup adds up to a robust meal. Salt-and-pepper pork chop translates as a lot of chopped, breaded meat, zipped up with a liberal dose of the seasonings that give it its name, and sprinkled with green and red bell pepper for some color contrast with all the beige. It's perfectly pleasant.
Winning details distinguish this restaurant. It's nice to get a free snack -- most likely cucumbers tingling with rice wine vinegar, ginger and garlic -- when you sit down. One evening, after I draped my suit jacket over a chair, a server volunteered to hang it up for me so it wouldn't get wrinkled. If the food sometimes comes out too quickly, I guess I prefer speed to an epic wait. From the pretty decor to a chilled glass for your beer, Grace Bamboo delivers more than a few grace notes.
On a recent visit to the Austin Grill in Bethesda, Len Taylor says he and his wife were led to a table "next to the order station, kitchen and bathrooms -- not the best," as the Darnestown reader described it in an e-mail. "Before we could request a different table, the waiter put a 6-inch trophy on our table, and on it was the inscription: Austin Grill Worst Table 2004. That lightened the mood, we ate, and when we received the bill, there was a 25 percent discount for -- you guessed it -- The Worst Table Award!" The restaurant's general manager, Joseph Miller, confirmed the quirk (and the food discount) when I called. "I suppose I could pull it out," he says of the table in question, which also wobbles, "but we've always been a fun and funky restaurant. This sets us apart." Miller got the idea for the joke a few years ago during a business trip to Austin, Tex., where he spotted a "bad" table, set off with a shower curtain, in a restaurant. At Miller's place in Bethesda, far from complaining about the worst table, customers actually request it, he says. "Instead of trying to hide the problem, we celebrate it."
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