Hours: Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday noon to 10 p.m. Prices: Dinner for two with appetizers, drinks and desserts costs about $30 including tax and tip. Cards: American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa.
We've seldom had feelings so mixed about a restaurant as we do about Kinmen. On one hand, the servers are so friendly and caring and the meal is so thoughtfully paced that we feel as though we're eating at the home of an old family friend -- and by the third time, our hostess anxiously asks, "Is everything all right?" We wish we could break into honest smiles and say "Oh, everything's delicious!"
And some of the dishes are good. But the whole truth is more disappointing: dish after dish, most of Kinmen's cooking has been mediocre.
The bulk of the menu is a modest mix of the usual American-style Chinese dishes -- a little Cantonese, a bit of Szechuan and Hunan. But the most appealing and intriguing thing about the Kinmen menu is its back page, which lists a few dozen Korean-style Chinese dishes. This is what most Korean and Chinese guests tend to eat. In fact, until about a year ago, the restaurant didn't even bother to give this part of the menu to non-Asians.
Start with big platters of fried and steamed dumplings -- these are dumplings with texture, wrapped in substantial, chewy dough (though we'd like more filling) and served with a light, spicy sauce. Next, order noodles with seafood and brown sauce: noodles tossed with a paste of black beans, thick with roasty onions, sprinkled with shrimp.
Now the vegetable combination: matchsticks of vegetables and meats tossed in a dozen textures and colors -- crunchy carrots and docile onions and soft strips of egg, tender shrimp and wiggly sea cucumbers and furls of translucent bean noodles -- all drizzled with lukewarm, mild mustard sauce.
So far so good. But the more dishes you try, the more Kinmen's weaknesses show through. The kitchen seems to struggle when it fries meats: the pork or chicken may be perfectly tender, but nothing happens to the crust. The batter just hangs there on the meat, soggy and unappetizing.
The sauces don't have much finesse: as you try one after the other -- whether pork or seafood with red pepper, or chicken with garlic, or Hunan special beef -- you may search in vain for a distinctive flavor, a subtle shade of spices. But the food will taste just hot or not hot, and that's all. Occasionally a sauce is too thick, occasionally too oily.
For an after-dinner treat, Kinmen does a nice job with the toffee bananas (or apples or canned pineapple chunks). Dessert becomes a small event as the hostess expertly pulls each molten, caramel-covered piece of fruit from the plate, breaking the slender sugar strand, and then plunges it into icy water where the coating turns crisp. But touches like these and gracious service just aren't enough to carry the whole meal.