Next time we have a meeting in Crystal City and a hankering for Chinese cooking, we might well return to Lee Yuan. But we wouldn't go out of our way to eat there. The food's decent but seldom much better than average and some of it is overpriced.
The dishes at Lee Yuan usually contain nice ingredients -- lots of shredded carrots and other vegetables, big, tender chunks of chicken and excellent, lean pork, some of the better Chinese roast pork we've had (but please, Lee Yuan, get rid of all those canned mushrooms). The servings are a pretty good size.
If you sat down for dinner and ordered only one or two dishes, chances are you'd be satisfied, especially if you ordered something simple like Moo Shi Pork. Lee Yuan's Moo Shi is light and crunchy, unlike many other versions we've had that are mushy. It's filled with cabbage and flecks of scallion and wispy black mushrooms with practically no grease.
Another modest dish, one of the better ones, is Yangchow lo mein, sort of a Chinese pasta primavera -- a tangle of soft noodles, quickly fried crisp, covered with ivory white chicken and shrimp and broccoli and other vegetables. One of our favorite dishes is listed as an appetizer, a heap of sliced Cantonese roast pork, all on its own, in a sweet and smoky sauce.
But as we've ventured further into the ornate-sounding specials, we've found more disappointing dishes. The menu boasts that Lee Yuan serves "duplications" of some of the most famous recipes in China, served at "many of China's state dinners honoring world leaders."
We've tried some of the ones with the most enticing descriptions, dishes we've never seen before in the area, such as Chien Lung Chicken, "Filets of chicken wrapped over snow peas, water chestnuts, tips of bamboo shoots, onions and Virginia ham, fried golden brown in a thin batter . . . the favorite of the emperors!" Despite what the menu says, the batter was thick, the sauce was glompy, and the whole thing tasted like a heavy corn dog.
The menu warns that another specialty, kung hsiang chicken, is "hot" with "hot chili and spicy sauce," but the dish hardly had any bite.
Many of the dishes here taste monotonously similar, whether the menu says they're "rich and spicy" or "hot" or "sizzling" or simply plain: At a recent dinner we closed our eyes and slurped the sauces from three dishes and none of us could guess which was which. If you want something with at least a little sting to it, try jumbo shrimp pepperada, rubbed with red peppery spices and tossed with lots of onions. This is, incidentally, one of the few seafood dishes on the menu (they're all shrimp; Lee Yuan serves no fish).
One of the dishes we had recently, Kam Lo won ton, exemplifies Lee Yuan's problem. The waiter brought a bowl filled with lovely looking ingredients -- crisp broccoli, pinky red pork, broad mushrooms and water chestnuts, poised artfully in a pale red broth, served with a platter of big, flat fragile won ton skins. It looked delicious and interesting and should have been. But the sauce was washed out, disappointing. If the kitchen had more courage with its sauces, this restaurant could leap a level.