Don't go to the House of the Chinese Gourmet on a Sunday evening unless you like crowds milling around waiting for tables and service that is too fast rather than efficient.
But do go to this new Chinese restaurant at a quieter time.It offers first-rate, well-prepared and unusual dishes at prices that are moderate -- or at least fair.
Having heard from a friend that getting a table on Sunday often involved an hour's wait, we had called in the afternoon to make a reservation for 6:30 p.m. -- prime time for Chinese restaurants. When we arrived, we could hardly move through the crowd to reach the hostess, and felt fortunate when we were shown to a table 15 minutes later.
The restaurant is situated in a group of shops just north of Congressinal Plaza. The decor is only vaguely oriental: the walls are heavy stucco with wooden beams and Tiffany lamps hang over tables, but here and there we spied a delicate Chinese floral watercolor.
One of Chinese Gourmet's big drawing cards is the $9.95 duck dinner, which is available Sunday through Thursday. The dinner -- big enough for two -- includes a bowl of duck soup with vegetables and a whole Peking duck, fragrant and crispy. Other intriguing selections on the menu include: stir fried yellow eel, $11.95; braised turtle, $29.95, braised sea cucumbers, $9.95; pork kidney in hot and sour sauce, $4.95.
For starters, we stuck with tried and true family favorites: egg roll ($1.59), wonton soup (85 cents), egg drop soup (65 cents), and one less familiar appetizer -- steamed buns ($1.50).
The duck soup with vegetables turned out to be a mild one with cabbage, bean curd and chunks of duck. The wonton soup had more oomph, but the egg drop soup, fortunately, was unpleasantly greasy. As our soups were whisked away, the order of egg rolls arrived. They had been fried to a crisp in richly textured batter and were well drained of cooking oil, but we found the filling flat.
The steamed buns arrived five minutes later, the only lapse in service. The menu called the buns "one of the most popular appetizers for the Chinese." We understood why. They were served in a dainty wooden steamer with a slatted bottom. Over the slats, cabbage leaves had been layered and steamed along with four delicate buns stuffed with a fragrant and spicy meat filling.
Before we had a chance to savor the steamed buns, however, our main courses arrived. We could understand the need for speedy service, but that didn't mean we liked it.
The Peking duck came with a stack of eight pancakes, a plate of thinly sliced scallions and plum sauce. The whole duck, glistening with crisp skin, was carved at the table, with the meat laid out on one plate, the skin on another. It was superb.
Shrimp with green peas ($5.95) was a nice accompaniment. The shrimp were sweet and fresh, lightly cooked and enhanced by a light sauce. Jumbo sweet and sour spareribs ($6.95) were well prepared and meaty.
The surprise of the meal was the snow cabbage with bean curd strips ($4.75) which our son, a vegetarian, had ordered. The bean curd had been pressed and sliced so that it looked like noodles. The delicate flavor of snow cabbage plus an inventive use of the spice rack had produced a beautiful, unusual and delicious dish we all enjoyed.
Fortune cookies and a check appeared at our table as soon as the main courses were finished. The busboy put our leftovers into cardboard containers. We paid $33.70 including tax.
Atmosphere: Busy, busy.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Price range: Most dinner entrees, $4.25 to $15.95.
Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
Special facilities: Accessible to patrons in wheelchairs; parking in shopping center lot; booster seats for young diners.