If you were to construct for yourself an exemplar of a Chinese restaurant, you'd no doubt envision something akin to Taste of China.
It is a refined restaurant, accented with brushstrokes of black on white walls; soft, low-hanging lamps; great earthen pots, and recessed screened windows that lend a bright and modern look.
To detract from the smallness, a glass divider has been positioned in the middle of the room to create two cozy sections. On the tables, fan-shaped menus, another nice touch, rest atop each place setting.
Taste of China has borrowed the best of the American fern bar -- polished wood floors and comfortable seating -- and combined it with oriental simplicity of design with good result.
Moreover, it is a friendly restaurant, where greetings are warm and service is swift and attentive, if a bit amateurish on occasion. (One young waiter requested that I order dishes by their numbers rather than their names, but he was just being efficient, I suppose.) Certainly you're made to feel at home.
Above all, Taste of China is a reliable place to dine. True to its name, it offers a fine sampling of Chinese regional cooking, ably blending diverse dishes into a comparatively brief menu. And I envy the neighbors of Taste of China such a fine carryout (delivery is free, the menu says).
For starters, there are fine, crisp spring rolls and terrific steamed dumplings, their slippery light casings wrapped around a filling of ground pork, and served with a ginger-infused dipping sauce. Bon bon chicken features lovely moist chicken chunks and strips of cool cucumber in a fragrant peanut sauce. A plate of delicate fried wontons, quite tasty, were thankfully free of the heaviness found elsewhere.
Soups are a sure bet, too: The hot and sour broth was a fine example of that ubiquitous offering. The egg white-thickened seafood soup for two was gentle and filling, consisting of large bowls of fresh and crunchy-tender carrots and peas, velvety mushrooms and shrimp.
With few exceptions, main dishes are a graceful transition from the appetizers. And there seems to be something for every taste.
You want heat? Hunan beef with hot orange flavor, flecked with chilies and chunks of green pepper, is pleasantly fiery, the caramelized beef flavorful and a bit sweet.
You want poultry? You can't miss with the delectable chicken with walnuts, a melange of diced celery, slices of water chestnuts and meaty nuts touched with sugar, then sauced in a fine brown plum sauce.
Fish? The crispy whole fish was a hit at my table (in fact, the entire dining room took note): Surrounded by julienned carrots, scallions and an ocean of subtly hot orange sauce, the aromatic and cleanly fresh fish was wonderfully crisp on the outside, moist on the inside.
No less pleasing was Dragon and Phoenix, a beautiful plate of food garnished with slices of tomato, carrot wedges and snow peas, teaming pearly pink shrimp with chili-spiked chicken. The Mongolian Style Lamb is simple and fragrant with thin slivers of meat and a fistful of scallions. Following up the selections are a handful of noodle dishes, including a delicious but oversalted dish of pan fried noodles.
The missteps are few: Chicken in its nest was certainly among this restaurant's prettier presentations, but the flavorful mix of quail eggs, crunchy peanuts and assorted vegetables was detracted from by tough chicken pieces and a chewy potato basket, which tasted like shoe string potatoes fried in old oil. And though the sauce blanketing the sweet and sour pork was richer and more balanced than most, it did little to bolster the flavor of the chewy and tough meat.
Dinner ends as refreshingly as it begins, with a plate of orange sections and fortune cookies.
Happily for diners, Dupont Circle's treasure is as economical as it is delightful. And on the whole, it has proven itself to be a most delicious Taste of China.