Hours: Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Prices: Dinner for two with appetizers, drinks and desserts costs $40 to $50 including tax and tip. Cards: American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa.
The Inn of the Eight Immortals opened with a flourish years ago, but now it has a sad air about it, like a tired actor just going through the motions.
The setting looks like great things could happen -- a lavish, expansive dining room with ornately painted ceilings, columns entwined with flaming gold serpents and, most unusual of all, smack in the middle of the dining room, a Disney-esque mock rock garden complete with plants, fountain and angry dragon's head. This is, says the menu, a "breathtaking dining room which echoes the classic splendor of ancient imperial palaces" and prepares you for "the ultimate in luxury dining that awaits you."
But it's more like a disused movie set, where nothing much of consequence happens anymore. After ordering more than 20 dishes, all we've had is dull, pedestrian food -- food you might accept with a shrug at a neighborhood dive, but not at a restaurant with such pretensions and prices (more than $8 for many dishes, and modest portions at that).
For appetizers, the best bets are roast pork, offering moist slices in a faintly spicy soy sauce, and lean, tender barbecued spare ribs, served simply and uncluttered by heavy glaze. Egg rolls and golden rolls, which are scarcely any different, are nothing special. Sen sen shrimp can taste stiffly like iodine, and the pu pu platter is best forgotten, as at most Chinese restaurants.
The best entrees we've tried are Immortals roast duck, which consists of large chunks of duck tossed with fresh squares of ginger in a sauce perfumed with anise, and shrimp boat-scallop, which are wonderfully light little fried dumplings made of ground shrimp stuffed with soft white scallops and topped with black bean sauce.
Some of the beef dishes are pretty good, too, such as medium-rare strips of steak with ginger in oyster sauce (ginger beef), and the moo shi pork, which contains lots of fried egg and shades of plum sauce.
The rest of the entrees are more innocuous than anything else. As you eat dish after dish, they seem to have the same vague sauces with the same (lack of) spices and the same enthusiastic dependence on corn starch -- whether black pearl chicken or beef with oyster sauce or triple crown (chicken, pork and a few microscopic shreds of lobster).
If only the cooking were as adventurous as the menu descriptions: pa hsien chicken, for instance, is described as "seasoned and rubbed with special marinating sauce, roasted to golden crispness, then boned and cut to rest in a bed of succulent Chinese vegetables." But on a recent night the chicken was so dry and tough we literally couldn't swallow it.
Perhaps the restaurant is just stumbling through a tough period, like a middle-aged depression, and will reemerge with new vigor and creativity. It better hurry up, because the funk is rubbing off on the staff. Our waiter at a recent dinner was rude and brusque, almost hostile, as if he couldn't wait to leave the dragons and murals and go home.
It's hard to imagine that many diners don't feel the same way.