Panda Gourmet

2614 Connecticut Ave. NW

483-8400

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Lunch appetizers $1.25 to $4.50, entrees $5.50 to $6.75; dinner appetizers $1.25 to $4.50, entrees $5.95 to $13.

Cards: American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

Nonsmoking area in dining room.

Panda Gourmet is a Washington rarity -- a true neighborhood restaurant with downtown appeal, where for moderate prices you can get generous portions of well-prepared Chinese food, attractively presented and courageously spiced.

Even the service is friendly and efficient at this seven-month-old establishment, which is getting better by the day.

Just steps away from the Woodley Park-National Zoo Metro station, it replaced the tired Cantonese restaurant called Chin's that fit the uninspired stereotype of a neighborhood eatery only too well.

A new neon sign out front now invites customers into an attractively renovated pale gray dining room rimmed with booths and filled with tables. And while it went through a few bumpy months as though timidly feeling its way, Panda Gourmet is now showing some real flair.

There is still an occasional overdose of salt and an overwhelming sauce or two, but for the most part the selections we sampled offered a nice balance of meat, vegetables and spices.

Dishes marked "hot and spicy" weren't too hot. And deep-fried items were crispy without being greasy.

Daily specials are listed on a blackboard at the door, and while there's nothing too startling about that, it's a bit unusual at Chinese restaurants, where written menus typically are numbingly long and almost never change.

One day the posted specials included asparagus and sauteed soft-shelled crabs; another day, sea bass cooked to order, including steamed, with black bean sauce or deep fried and served with Szechuan-style vegetables.

We tried the crabs ($10.95) and the asparagus ($6.25 as a side dish). The asparagus came stir-fried just long enough to be crunchy and lightly coated with just enough sauce to cover them.

The soft-shells consisted of a large, messy, spicy platter of chopped crabs, lightly batter-fried and then stir-fried with slivers of water chestnuts, celery and tree ears. It was a dramatic presentation, but the rich, spicy garlic sauce drowned the delicate crab meat.

The pan-fried dumplings ($3.95 for six at lunch or dinner) were nice for starters. Plump meat-filled pastries fried crisp on the bottom, steamed and served with a soy-based dipping sauce -- or red chili sauce if you'd rather. The asparagus and crab soup ($5.90 for two at dinner) was disappointing, featuring artificial crab and canned asparagus in an undistinguished egg-drop broth.

Among the entrees, we liked Chicken Three Ways ($11.50), a generous and attractive platter of three very different dishes of chicken: large deep-fried chunks served in a thick sweet sauce studded with whole diced chilis; snowy white breast meat strips glazed in a clear sauce and served with snow peas; and chopped in a peppery sweet-hot stir-fry with a hint of tomato.

Peking Duck can be purchased here without advance notice and by the half ($9.50) or whole ($19). The duck was nearly boneless (only the legs were left intact) and about as fat-free as duck gets. The meat was tender and the skin crunchy, and our half-order was accompanied by a generous pile of those splendidly thin pancakes used to roll up meat, hoisin sauce and scallions.

Lamb with Broccoli ($11.25 at dinner) was another winner, featuring thin slivers of lamb with nicely undercooked broccoli, barely covered in a lively but hardly searing sauce. "Bar-B-Q Pork with Mixed Vegetables" ($7.95 at dinner) featured pork that was, in fact, not barbecued at all, but rather stir-fried with snow peas nicely undercooked and a spare sauce.

Home-style Bean Curd in Black Bean Sauce ($6.25) combined deep-fried triangles of bean curd, squares of just-cooked cabbage, straw mushrooms, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots in a tasty black bean sauce that was not overbearing.

We ordered a Chinese dessert called Crystal Bananas ($4 for two), an unusual dish made by dipping chunks of banana into hot caramelized sugar syrup and then plopping them into ice water to yield soft insides and sweet crispy exteriors. For the more traditional, the obligatory fortune cookies arrive automatically at the end of the meal.

Dinner entrees are in the $8 to $10 range, and lunch entrees are mostly $5.50 to $6.50, with combination platters priced $5.75 to $6.50.

A four-color menu centerfold tempts diners with photographic previews of many of the house specials, generally priced $11 to $13.

Full bar service is available, with the usual tropical and frozen drinks ($3.25 each), mixed drinks ($3 each) and beers ($1.95 domestic, $2.75 foreign).

Waiters, while occasionally sidetracked, were polite, friendly and efficent -- and very helpful in interpreting the menu.