Like a Duck
restaurants don't come much more dazzling than Meiwah.
Granted, its primary competition in the aesthetic department
tends to be thinthere's a reason that the scent
of kung pao chicken triggers images of teastained
paper place mats. But Meiwah's a beauty nonetheless.
The main dining room's bisected horizontally by a raised,
loftlike eating area, which creates romantic alcoves
below, and halogen lights set the whole thing softly
aglow. The steel grids, murals, railings, and door handles-plus
the pair of 9-and-a-half-feet-tall 19th-century Chinese
wood doors weighing 400 pounds eachsuggest the
interior of an ancient temple. The bar's stocked with
top-shelf vodka, and drinking straws come adorned with
paper flamingos. Glass walls invite the street outside
to come tumbling in. The menu may look strikingly familiar,
but, clearly, we're not in the old Chinatown.
more, if Meiwah isn't the best local Chinese restaurant
to open in ages, it's certainly proved to be the most
quickly and eagerly embraced. Even in its early days,
getting a table during lunch required waiting for one
to dear, and dinners are only slightly less congested.
Location, location, location can be credited for a portion
of Meiwah's early successin the past, finding
decent Chinese in this not-quite-Dupont, not-quite-Foggy
Bottom section of downtown was as easy as finding a
cheap place to ditch your car-but you've got to hand
the rest of the props to Larry La. When he was owner
of City Lights of China, La cultivated a cult of personality
out of the simplest ingredients: consistent cooking
and small-town benevolence. Suffice it to say that you
don't really count as a Dupont resident until you've
made City Lights takeout a weekly habit.
when La split from City Lights nearly two years ago,
the restaurant lost much of its character, and, to judge
by the crowds at Meiwah, the restaurateur's followers
have been gnawing at the bit waiting for him to re-emerge.
La's new restaurant is too downtown-sleek to fully recapture
the flavor of the restaurant he left, but he has enlisted
a lot of his old colleagues, including kitchen staff,
in his new venture; on several occasions I notice diners
embracing employees as if they were wayward cousins.
menu reads like one of Clinton's better speechesit's
long but it touches all the bases-and over four visits,
we discover that it contains hints of greatness: Cornish
hen is crisp-skinned, and its juicy meat is all the
better after a dip in the rich, dark broth that comes
on the side. Pork is tender and sweetly spiced, mounded
together playfully with fried wontonsthe menu
calls them "tinkling bells." Shrimp, propped up by a
mountain of brilliant green broccoli, are crunchy in
their own shells and a thin layer of spicy salt, and
the vegetable starters are uniformly stellar: Snow peas
snap with freshness under a cloak of ginger sauce. Chinese
cabbage is spicy and crisp, a mellow cousin to the Korean
kimchi. And the vegetable tempura is a light-crunch
partyparticularly the baby corn, which, to quote
my girlfriend, is "fun in the mouth,"
much of Meiwah's food lacks the subtle refinements that
helped make City Lights the toast of a community. One
of the "chef's specialties" contains two piles of shrimp—one
in a white sauce, the other in a thin tomato sauceseparated
by a wall of lemons, which you'll need; neither preparation
imparts much flavor at all. Blandness, as it turns out,
is a reoccurring phenomenon. Seafood soup is notable
for its single chunk of delicious lobster, but the rest
of its contents-listless broth, pallid shrimp, scallops
aching for more engaging company—elicit a bored sigh.
The scallops in another dish are indeed plump and sweet,
but the sparkless garlic sauce subsuming them is dead
weight, masking the main ingredient's finer virtues.
Beef in oyster sauce is a chewy wash; if you're craving
beef, order it shredded and fried. An appetizer of squid
in spicy salt is nicely textured, sprinkled with chopped
green chilies, but its battery sheathing is bready and
cumbersome; the spicy salt is barely detectable.
repeat visits, I learn that Meiwah's food is best when
it reflects its opulent surroundings. One flounder dish
is simply a trip: The flaky meat's been cut from the
fish and deep fried, then tossed with a light sauce
and some crisp vegetables and laid back into the skeleton,
which itself has been deep-fried and shaped to look
like a boat. Beijing duck is even more delicious, and
our waiter's got the serving ceremony down cold: With
a few whacks of a knife, the plump whole duck's reduced
to a plate of fanned-out crunchy skin and mounds of
dark meat, which we quickly wrap inside thin pancakes
with scallions and hoisin sauce.
din of disappointment grows softer with each bite of
that duck meat, and to be fair, even very good Chinese
restaurants hit a lot of bad notes-with menus that big,
you simply have to know what to order. But Meiwah is
clearly not just another Chinese restaurant. Too many
people are already lining up to love it. Here's hoping
that the shiny glint on the skin of that duck is a reflection
of La's bright past-and that he's able to prove himself
a second time.
1200 New Hampshire Ave. NW, (202) 833-2888. BrettAnderson