Ms. Tao Restaurant
817 Seventh St. NW 289-4144 Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday, noon to 3 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Prices: Appetizers $2.25 to $5.50, entrees (exclusive of soups) $5.95 to $18. Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
If all you ever ate at Ms. Tao was soup, you would think this youthful Cantonese restaurant a delicious bargain: Soup not only dominates the list of appetizers, it can be had in varieties as familiar as won ton or as exotic and memorable as stewed birds' nest with crab meat. And the portions are enormous, more than enough for two to share.
By and large, these soups are among Chinatown's best. One of the more outstanding is a combination of bright mustard greens, silken bean curd, and thin slices of pork swimming in a golden, ginger-redolent stock ($5.25), punctuated with bites of duck egg. Another, compay with chives ($10.50), features dried squid in an earthy, mushroom-flecked broth. In terms of presentation, the winter melon soup ($6.75) is a stunning melange of chicken, peas, fleshy mushrooms, bits of ham and shrimp and cubes of white melon.
As such, Ms. Tao is a restaurant worth keeping in mind for its steaming bowlfuls, if not its dining room, a spartan space appointed with little more than a mirrored wall, rose-colored carpet and glass-topped tables.
The lack of any decorating flourish aside, the restaurant is not without personality. The place is generally filled with a largely Chinese clientele, ranging from card-playing, Walkman-outfitted teens to extended families gathered around large circular tables in the rear.
As is typical of so many Chinese restaurants, the menu here is long, a seven-page compendium of seafood, poultry, beef, pork, vegetable and noodle dishes, with a detour into a full page of Szechuan and Hunan specialties. On the roster are dishes and ingredients not usually spotted hereabouts: Duck blood with ginger and scallions comes to mind.
For openers, I'd be hard pressed to veer from the soups, although you might not want to miss out on the kitchen's savory fried dumplings, with their crisp golden wrappers encasing bites of flavorful ground pork, or a chilled dish of jellyfish slices, marinated in sesame oil. Other standard Chinese appetizers, such as the spring rolls and fried won tons, have been bland in contrast.
Some of my favorite dishes at Ms. Tao have been those featuring noodles. One standout is beef chow foon, a strapping portion of thick, slippery noodles moistened with black bean sauce and blended with plenty of thick slices of moist meat and assorted vegetables. The saffron-colored stick rice noodles, perfumed with curry and made more colorful with the addition of scallions, shrimp and such is almost its equal.
Seafood, too, is generally well-prepared, be it fried squid stuffed with shrimp and laced with chiles, or a sizzling pot of plump oysters in a nest of scallions, the stew's flavor enhanced by the flavor of fresh ginger. Velvet slices of abalone are partnered with everything from sea cucumbers to duck's feet, which the waitress might offer to have deboned before serving.
Satisfying if less elaborate is the steamed ground pork, a plate of highly seasoned meat decorated with sprigs of coriander and topped with a duck egg.
Of the entrees, the only real disappointment was a special of roast duck, which was delivered to the table tepid, limp and without much flavor.
The casual, relaxed tone set by the staff is enhanced by the endings at Ms. Tao, which include not just a tray of fortune cookies, but also the delivery of warm towels and refreshing slices of orange. Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.