Hours: Open seven days, breakfast 7 to 11:30 a.m.; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner 5 to 11 p.m. Prices: Dinner appetizers $1.20 to $4.95; a la carte entrees $5.95 to $13.95. Cards: American Express, Carte Blanche, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa.
For longtime area residents, the magic word has always been "duck" at David Lee's.
In an era in which any Chinese restaurant that aspires above chop suey offers Peking duck, hoisan fans should keep a grateful memory of the man who made this item de rigeur -- and in doing so, demonstrated his conviction that the common man's culinary consciousness could be raised.
Lee's latest little China garden is in the deceptively occidental lobby of a brightly restored guest hotel in the busy Sheraton-to-Shoreham charcuterie strip above the Calvert bridge. Although it is neither the most lavish nor the most exotic of such establishments, it demonstrates that Lee's faith in his fellow diners has not wavered. The food is never less than satisfying and sometimes has a sly, seductive subtlety that is the sensory version of "I told you so."
There are standouts even among the appetizers: fried dumplings that are so pungently porky that they make lunchmeat of the competition; nutty-sweet minced shrimp and sesame seeds spread on toast tidbits, and "house special" bean curd sheets rolled around black mushrooms, shredded ham and rice.
One of the cold appetizer offerings is heavenly, the other peculiarly humorous. The first, called "unique flavored chicken," is perfectly poached white meat, chilled and shredded and dressed with serious red pepper flakes and a dash of sesame oil and served in a delirious mound.
The other, "crispy jellyfish," an irresistible oxymoron that makes "jumbo shrimp" seem passe, is one of those foods in which taste is generally overwhelmed by texture -- a cool resilient crunch much like the cellophane noodles that this dried and reconstituted jellyfish resembles. (Actually, the flavor is pretty much dominated by sesame oil; a dash of pepper sauce or at least soy gives it more bite.) The fun is more physical than flavorful.
Among the various columns of main courses, the seafood options seem most adventuresome, although the cuttlefish (squid) has yet to be available upon request. (This is another mark of evolution: The Sino-seafood specialists in the area are prospering, and so the other kitchens are warming up to it.) Nearly half are starred for spice, but because all orders are expected in degree (you order mild, hot or very hot), some of the traditionally cool preparations can be pepped up a little.
The choices are generally familiar -- shrimps, scallops, fish and lobsters offered in assorted combinations with ginger sauce, garlic sauce or kung pao power -- but they are graciously handled, for the most part. General Tso's shrimp, and shrimp with cashews both employ small sweet shrimp; but the aggressive shrimp with hot ginger and chili sauce succeeds brilliantly, partly because the jumbos are brought to the table just at the cusp of doneness, still meltingly soft and emerging from their adolescence in the heat of Szechuan red peppers.
For those who don't mind getting down and dirty, there are chopped crabs stir-fried in assorted sauces, and lobster, its tail sectioned but still shelled, sauteed in ginger. However, lobster never suffers direct heat gladly; the "mild" mandarin-style lobster meat cradled in a white sauce is far more attractive than the resentful and resilient gingered version.
Beef, pork and lamb dishes are similarly standard, and the nonspicy versions tend to fall back on heavy brown glazes, but the peppery preparations (a shredded pork Szechuan and a piquant though slightly cornstarchy orange beef) have more pizzazz. Lamb, offered in the traditional Hunan or scallion smotherings, also comes kung pao, and it is as strong and gamey a meat as the Mongols were likely to have treasured.
Ditto the chicken . . . but there is, of course, Peking Duck, beautifully roasted and displayed, though not carved, at tableside. The meat reappears arranged on a platter, the little tidbits perhaps sacrificed in favor of the more significant slices, but the meat nicely moist and the skin thoroughly trimmed of fat. If you want to use the bones to make duck soup (the chef apparently doesn't), you may ask to have the carcass wrapped to take home.