The Harvest Moon restaurant, across from Loehmann's Plaza in Falls Church, is a bright new light on the dining landscape of Northern Virginia.
True, the Harvest Moon has the familiar mix of dishes from Canton, Hunan and Szechuan expected in suburban Chinese restaurants. Here, however, the quality is exceptionally good -- and, there is also a menu in Chinese that offers a number of intriguing possibilities.
Although some of the ingredients on the untranslated menu may be too foreign for Western taste, such as sea cucumber (sea slugs) with green onion and soy sauce, or four different preparations of squid, there are other dishes such as the roast duck in special brown sauce or steamed whole fish that may be more readily palatable.
It may take some patience and persistence to convince a waiter or one of the friendly owners that you are serious about trying one of the typical Chinese dishes.
We discovered a superb steamed whole fish with garlic and a slightly sweet, dark sauce that is listed only on the Chinese menu. The fish that night was sea bass for $15.95, studded and steamed with at least 12 cloves of garlic. The garlic flavor in the fish was surprisingly subtle, but slightly stronger if you ate one of the whole cloves, which had the consistency of a roasted chestnut. The fish was perfectly done, leaving the flesh firm and moist.
Another variation is the steamed fish with ginger, spring onions, pork and mushrooms.
On the regular menu, both the spring roll and egg roll are densely packed with vegetables and speckled with pork and shrimp. They are served with the usual sweet sauce, and while the mustard has a familiar look, it packs at least double the punch.
There is considerable variety among the seven soup possibilities -- from a simple egg drop to an elaborate triple delights sizzling rice soup for two with tender slices of pork, chicken or shrimp.
The thick minced chicken with corn soup is reminiscent of creamy corn pudding.
The more familiar wonton soup contains giant wontons with a tasty pork filling.
Only the hot and sour soup came up short of our expectations by not being as spicy or as sour as other versions. It wasn't bad, just different from other hot and sour soups we have experienced.
Along those same lines, although the food is uniformly good, there were a few other surprises such as the spicy kick to the plum sauce for the mu shu pork pancakes. And the tai-chien chicken, a Szechuan specialty, listed spicy red pepper sauce in its ingredients but was relatively mild.
On the other hand, another dish described as spicy, the Hunan lamb, lived up to its billing. The flavorful strips of lamb and colorful vegetables and mushrooms are drenched in a dark gravy, both sweet and fiery.
A real standout is the orange beef, with hot peppers, but mild and sweet enough to appeal to all but the most sensitive.
For a very showy dish, try the treasures of the sea -- a combination of tender shellfish and crunchy vegetables in a light gravy served in a crisp potato nest.
For those who enjoy working their meat off the bone, two good choices would be the rich, tea-smoked duck or the "Oriental style" Canton pork tenderloin.
After such satisfying food, the lychee nuts and the homemade coconut cake for dessert seem superfluous. The complimentary plum wine with a fortune cookie offers just the right finishing touch.
You can't beat the Harvest Moon as a solid, all-purpose Chinese restaurant. The waiters are gracious and formal in their starched white shirts, dark suits and bow ties. Past the fountain in the colorful foyer, the decor of the ample dining area tends to be quietly cheerful and comfortable. In addition, there is live piano music and dancing Friday and Saturday nights. But most importantly, backed by a fine kitchen staff, the Harvest Moon shines on with a confidence that is well deserved.