This restaurant could be aptly renamed "House of Chinese Duck."
Wander around the dining room on a busy night and observe what people are eating: duck. Check the menu for what's specially featured: Peking duck, crispy duck and braised duck, and at only $12.95 for a whole bird Sunday through Thursday.
The emphasis is appropriate, for the duck dishes are outstanding.
The rest of the menu is smaller and more mundane than it used to be (those wonderful cold appetizers are gone now, for example), and what's left is mainly ordinary. The weakest aspect of the cooking remains the sauces, which tend to be heavy, blatant, too thick and overapplied.
But you can eat very well here. The trick is to build your meal around a duck, filling in with the dishes that don't have sauces, or at least with those that don't come with the dark brown, gooey variety.
By all means start with the steamed bun appetizer, with delicate yet nicely chewy wrappers and a good garlic- and ginger-laced ground pork filling. Or have the excellent fried dumplings. Add an order of cold sweet-and-sour cabbage, tart and crunchy -- and have a nibble from time to time to cut the richness of the duck. But be wary of the deep-fried appetizers, which we've found too oily lately.
The duck? Peking duck, carved at the table, is a beauty, the skin a perfect burnished amber and remarkably bare of fat, the meat moist and tender, the pancakes thin yet sturdy. The crispy duck is just as good, without the tableside carving show, but with wonderfully subtle flavorings.
What to have with the duck? Since the moo shi pork is excellent -- not too much sauce and with plenty of crisp vegetables -- you might order it with Peking duck for an all-pancake, roll-your-own dinner. Novel and nice.
Or have the vegetarian's delight, a decent mixed vegetable dish. Yellow birds is a more interesting vegetable alternative, in which diced vegetables are cooked inside a pleasantly chewy wrapper of bean curd -- a kind of Chinese version of stuffed cabbage.
Mandarin triple crown, a big, spherical nest of fried shoestring-cut potato filled with meats and vegetables, might be another good candidate. The portion is generous, the vegetables are lively and the sauce is a little lighter than most. Although the meat and scallops are good, the dish suffers from mushy shrimp -- in fact shrimp seems to be a consistently weak point here.
There are some respectable lo mein dishes, too, with nicely firm noodles, but they're a bit stingy with the meats.
With care, you can design an excellent meal at the House of Chinese Gourmet at a modest price. And you'll be eating it in a handsome dining room, simple but uncommonly pretty in an open, uncluttered way, with restful beiges, natural woods and soft lighting.
But remember, the key to liking this place is understanding its limits.