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Chinese restaurants don’t come much more dazzling than Meiwah. Granted, its primary competition in the aesthetic department tends to be thin—there’s a reason that the scent of kung pao chicken triggers images of tea-stained 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 each—suggest 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.
What’s 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 clear, and dinners are only slightly less congested. Location, location, location can be credited for a portion of Meiwah’s early success—in 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.
But 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.
Meiwah’s menu reads like one of Clinton’s better speeches—it’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 wontons—the 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 party—particularly the baby corn, which, to quote my girlfriend, is “fun in the mouth.”
But 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 sauce—separated 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.
Over 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.
The 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.
Meiwah, 1200 New Hampshire Ave. NW, (202) 833-2888.
Mr. Hibachi’s Japanese/Korean meals-in-a-bowl may not seem transcendent to those who shiver at the thought of eating from paper dinnerware, but one GW student couldn’t care less. “It’s fast food, fine,” he writes, “but it’s also good chow for less than five bucks.” He’s speaking of a $4.95 bowl of seasoned beef smothered in an almost-searing peanut mustard sauce, all of which is plopped over a mound of rice. The reader’s right when he says Hibachi’s “not a place you take [someone] you want to impress,” but it’s no dump, either. And, at $.95 a serving, the kimchi’s not half-bad.
Mr. Hibachi Rice and Noodle Bowl, 2313 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, (703) 524-6548. —Brett Anderson
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