1731 Connecticut Ave. NW 265-6688 Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Dinner appetizers $2 to $4.95, entrees $5.95 to $19.95. Cards: All major credit cards accepted.
Some restaurant locations seem to change hands as often as Elizabeth Taylor changes husbands. Take the basement of 1731 Connecticut Ave., for example. In the past two years, this grotto-like space has been home to a health food cafe by the name of City Lites, and a fast-food Chinese carryout, Honey Delight.
The current occupant is called City Lights of China, which appears to have borrowed its name from one of its predecessors and its cuisine from the other.
I hope it's in for a long run.
First off, the transformation from underground eating hall to a dining room of distinction is an impressive one.
The tile floors of this two-level restaurant have been replaced with royal blue carpeting, and the walls, punctuated with lighted circular faux windows, are covered with textured wallpaper in muted pastel tones. Ribbons of green neon wind through the ceiling of the lower level. And throughout the restaurant are signs of care and grace: Fanned pink napkins grace each plate, a lobster tank in the rear sports lively crustaceans, and the flowers are fresh and pretty bouquets.
In all, this is a cool and serene and very comfortable dining room. But pretentious it is not; City Lights of China could just as easily entertain a family as a romance. It seems to fill any need. And to smooth your evening are a host of uniformed servers, who, though they tend to hover on slow nights, go out of their way to attend to your needs.
Then there's the menu, relatively brief by Chinese restaurant standards, but composed of more than just the requisite dishes. Thus you can order sweet and sour pork or kung pao chicken. But there's the option of experimenting with, say, sea cucumbers stewed with scallions if you wish.
While City Lights of China awaits a liquor license, indulge in one of the bar's nonalcoholic fruit daiquiris. Served in tall, slender glasses, these refreshing and icy concoctions come in melon, banana, strawberry, watermelon and peach flavors, and are impressive even without any kick from booze.
The standouts among the appetizers are not the spring rolls or the vegetable tempura, but the supple steamed dumplings, plumped with ground pork and chives, and served with a fiery chile-infused dipping sauce, and the fleshy slices of garlic-redolent eggplant. But don't stop there. There's also an Oriental version of vegetable soup, a steaming bowl overflowing with snow peas, broccoli, thin slices of carrot and velvety black mushrooms.
The fried cornish hen is moist and meaty. And what look like chicken nuggets on a nest of shredded lettuce are actually lightly breaded and delicately fried scallops that smack of freshness.
On to the main courses: At City Lights of China, you can generally take the "hot and spicy" asterisks seriously. The delicious, crisp, fried shredded beef, a house specialty, will leave your mouth tingling well after dinner. So, too, will the fresh squid "country style," a melange of tender squid, baby corn, snow peas and mushrooms under a glistening, chile-spiked brown gravy. And the slices of "tangy lamb" are just that, their flavor further bolstered by the heat of fresh ginger.
For tamer tastes, try the subtly sweet-tart lemon chicken, or a generous bowl of the savory and filling pork noodle soup, which is about as homey as soup gets.
Not all dishes are so successful: If the lackluster shrimp curry I sampled recently was any indication, curried dishes in general are best overlooked. Another disappointment was the steamed grass carp, a delicate piece of fish that needed more seasoning -- and fewer bones.
On the whole, however, City Lights of China does a commendable job of feeding well in sophisticated environs, at prices that reflect such pleasantries but are within reason. What's more, in a neighborhood dominated by Italian bistros, City Lights of China proves a welcome and delicious change of pace. Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.