Given America’s dining ecosystem, in which big-city rents are high, profit margins tight and business failures common, no one should really be surprised anymore when a refined restaurant turns up in a suburban strip mall. I think it’s safe to say that some of my most memorable meals have been in places with views of a parking lot.
But even armed with this knowledge, I was not prepared for the dichotomy of Chef Guo in Alexandria. Situated in a stand-alone building that squats behind an Exxon station, just steps from a sandstone-colored strip mall with a laundromat and barber shop, Chef Guo specializes in Chinese imperial cuisine, available only in tasting menus that run as much as $278 per person. The place uses some of the most expensive ingredients on earth, prepared by a Chinese master chef who serves his plates atop rare, hand-painted chargers, the kind traditionally reserved for emperors and world leaders, not biweekly-paycheck jockeys like myself.
Outside the front door is the exhaust-choked world of duty and survival. Inside is the meditative cloud of Chinese royal cooking, with its connections to nature, peace, bliss and other higher spiritual planes. This is a Dorothy-to-Oz level schism.
The chef is Guo WenJun, who goes by Anthony Guo for the convenience of his Western diners. He speaks little English, and I speak no Mandarin, Cantonese or any other Chinese dialect, so my gathering of facts often came from online research and third-party sources. That Guo is a serious, well-educated chef, there can be little doubt. According to his biography on the restaurant’s website, as a teenager, he apprenticed to master chef Ding GuangZhou, described as “a seventh generation disciple in the line of royal chefs.” Guo’s studies have embraced Chinese imperial cooking and classical Western cuisines.
Guo, says Irene Qin, his reservationist and assistant, is considered a celebrity chef in China, where he has served as executive chef at the Beijing Palace International Hotel and the Palace Museum, among other places. “He’s more like an artist than a businessman,” Qin tells me.
The opening course for each of Guo’s three tasting menus confirms his artistic bent. You won’t have to wait long for it, either. The starter awaits you at the table, covered by an ornate porcelain dome. Your server will remove the lid to reveal a lip-smacking landscape composed of sliced, carved and rolled meats and vegetables. The chef builds the dish, called Butterfly in Love With the Flower, from top to bottom, but you eat it from bottom to top, as if to appreciate nature from the ground up, even as you destroy it. And you will destroy it.
The courses that follow will depend on which of the tasting menus you select. The most elaborate one — Banquet Filled With Precious Gem and Jade, which runs $278 per person, or $3 more than a seat at the chef’s counter at Minibar — will be a parade of international luxuries, all plated with the kind of palatial spectacle designed to impress emperors. You’ll encounter Australian abalone, Japanese Kobe beef, lobster tail in pumpkin soup, a fungus pairing of morels and lingzhi mushrooms, the latter traditionally used in Chinese medicine. You may not understand how the courses figure into Guo’s philosophy. You may not care, either, as each dish floats across your table, a feast for the eyes and palate.
No matter which menu you pick, you will experience a dizzying variety of dishes. Dishes steeped in Chinese myth (a graceful jelly, tucked into an eggshell and sweetened with peaches, a Chinese symbol of immortality). Dishes drenched in Western hedonism (a seared lobe of foie gras with jam, presented in a bird cage). Dishes that channel modernist whimsy (a savory ball of whipped yam and potato, surrounded by an electric-pink dragon fruit sauce and presented in a glass pipe that smokes with dry ice). And dishes that mimic imperial banquet sumptuousness (everything). It’s an East-West joyride, finished with a simple sliced orange, the Chinese symbol for good luck.
Some dishes turn up on more than one menu. Guo’s signature tangle of noodles and black bean sauce — cooling, sweet, unpretentious, satisfying — cuts across all three. Other dishes may pop up where they are not expected, such as a small, smothered patty topped with a Pocky stick (yes, a Pocky stick). The patty is described as a pork chop, but it’s not a pork chop. It’s a crusty pork pocket, stuffed with tiny cubes of unknown origin, and covered in a warm, sweet tomato sauce, which slowly melts the chocolate stick, adding another layer of sweetness to the whole confounding, captivating dish.
The namesake dish on the Banquet of Eternal Bliss Hot Pot — at $98 per person, the cheapest menu — is Guo’s grand take on a Beijing charcoal hot pot, minus the charcoal. A dragon-painted pot is presented and its top removed to expose a roiling broth packed with sausage, bok choy, quail eggs, abalone, cabbage and more. My bliss perhaps wasn’t eternal, but it continued to the last drop, even through the curious addition of processed crab sticks.
A whole abalone graced my Precious Gem and Jade tasting menu (even though it was officially advertised as part of the Banquet of Peace and Prosperity menu, $158 per person). The meaty shellfish, draped in a simple oyster sauce, took center stage on a white plate, with only a few vegetable garnishes. The dish’s significance required interpretation from a Chinese restaurateur, Janet Yu from Hollywood East Cafe, whom I had invited to dinner. She clued me into the price of Australian abalone (not cheap!) and the painstaking, multiday process to prepare it. “Not every chef can cook this,” she told me. This is a Chinese delicacy, its magnificence masked by its modesty.
In a dining room otherwise empty of customers, Yu and I whispered to each other across the table so as not to disturb the engulfing silence of Chef Guo, with its soft music and its leafy artificial ginkgo tree in the corner. We agreed Chef Guo might benefit from a change of address, if only to make the chef’s food more accessible than it is inside this lonely structure in the middle of a parking lot. But at present, the place is not yet ready for the scrutiny of official Washington, a town of privilege and Type-A impatience.
Chef Guo charges top-tier prices, but trades in start-up-level (but endearing) service. The bang-bang action-film pacing of the meal, the confusing description of plates, the disinterest in the restaurant’s wine program: These are all problems that would be magnified many times over in a more trafficked location. These imperfections, I must acknowledge, can be hard to accept even in the current space. You might be willing to forgive a strip-mall restaurant’s shortcomings at $50 a head, but at nearly $300 a visit, you want excellence at every turn.
Chef Guo (Good/Excellent) 6259 Little River Tpk., Alexandria. 703-256-8886. chefguo.com.
Open: Noon to 11 p.m. daily. Prices: Tasting menus $98 to $278.
Sound check: 61 decibels / Conversation is easy.