Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: About $2.20 to $4.75, main dishes $4.75 to $19, average dish $6.75 to $9.75. Reservations: Accepted but not required. Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard and American Express.
After you dispense with all the adjectives and metaphors, every restaurant review boils down to one question: Once you've eaten there, will you want to go back? At China Garden our answer is: Yes, but . . .
It's a friendly and frustrating restaurant that swings between promise and disappointment.
You'll begin your evening at China Garden in an expansive spirit--the dining room is open and airy, with high ceilings and chandeliers, a seemingly endless stretch of tables and a spectacular expanse of windows that liberates the restaurant on three sides with views of Rosslyn, Washington and the Potomac River.
The view isn't exactly pretty, but it's striking--the spires of Georgetown University and the Washington Monument rise gracefully in the distance but close by you peer at the Marriott cement tower and car lights streaming over Key Bridge.
The service at China Garden is likewise expansive. Waiters are incredibly friendly and helpful, cheerfully lending a sweater to a chilled customer and steering you away from dishes they don't like. And after you've had a single drink, you'll probably be feeling expansive, too. They have the usual inane names, such as Dr. Funk's Son, and come in Kon Tiki-vintage coconut cups, but there's no blender fluff here; just honest, potent drinks.
Once you start eating, though, you may begin to feel frustrated. The cooking veers from good to bad. Good: Barbecued spareribs (75 cents) are lean and crusty and Sing-Chow style noodles ($5.95) are peppery pungent and fragrant, sauteed until they're barely crisp and sprinkled with tiny shrimp and slivers of pork. Bad: Shrimp toasts are stuffed with shrimp paste and have the texture of rubber. They're encased in such a greasy crust that when you bite into them the fat oozes in rivulets.
Good: Crystal shrimp Szechuan style ($8.75) are delicious, large and tender, with just a hint of hot pepper. But not so good: Shredded chicken with hot chili and black bean sauce ($4.25) is little more than chicken with green peppers and boring at that.
The menu is more adventuresome than at other Chinese restaurants, with such dishes as duck with taro--boned duck chunks topped with a puree sauce that tastes like nutty mashed potatoes--and conch with Chinese broccoli, nicely perfumed with ginger, although the conch may be overcooked.
But our curiosity started to fade when we tried bean curd with spicy sesame sauce that had such a foul taste we asked the waiter if it was spoiled. He said it tasted normal. We never tasted curd like that before.
Perhaps the symbol of this culinary schizophrenia is the Peking duck. The duck may be perfectly cooked, tender and juicy, but the pancakes have the texture of a Styrofoam cup; the skin glistening brown and crispy, but when you turn it over it's sullied with globs of fat. With a price of $19, you'd say this dish is vastly overpriced, but the kitchen resurrects the duck with a flourish. It saves the duck trimmings and tosses them with crunchy match sticks of cabbage and bamboo shoots in a light, smoky-sweet sauce--a moo-shi style duck. One of the best dishes we've had.
Finish dinner on a festive note with deep fried ice cream flame ($2.25)--a tennis ball-sized scoop of vanilla ice cream coated with batter and fried to a crisp (on a good night), ignited with rum and doused with bittersweet chocolate. The spectacle vies with the panoramic view.
So if you're looking for a special Chinese meal and you want the dinner to go just right, don't risk the China Garden. But if you're willing to experiment--to tolerate the failures and keep note of the successes--you can build a reliable repertoire of good and occasionally excellent dishes.