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As someone who loves Chinese food but might only eat it half as much were it not for the cookie, I appreciate the fortune. It doesn’t have to be a positive or especially clairvoyant fortune. I ask only that the slip of paper make some effort to redeem the ridiculous cookie, like the one delivered to me years ago in a package of pre-smashed crumbs. It read, “Oops.”
The fortunes at Confucius Cafe are like dull public
“A friend only asks for your time not your money.”
“Now is the time to try something new.”
“You have a keen sense of humor and love a good time.”
What do these bits of hack wisdom have to do with my dining experience? Possibly everything. Our first trip to the cafe is chaotic. A waiter appears with a pen in hand and then vanishes before taking our order. The heating system roars every time the door opens. A waitress appears to apologize for the waiter; she doesn’t take our order, either. “We don’t have time for this,” gripes the man next to us, as he and his companion get up to leave before having eaten; when we finally get our food, it’s theirs. Several times during the night, the Muzak is drowned out by screaming from the kitchen. Go ahead and dismiss fortunes as frivolous, but if any restaurant could stand to benefit from a little hocus pocus, it’s this one.
Confucius Cafe’s kitchen, judging by the food that comes out of it, isn’t so much a shipwreck as it is a rudderless vessel. The restaurant is an offshoot of the reliable King Kong in College Park, whose owners are looking to recruit talent from China to bring some calm to the kitchen of their new venture. The restaurant employs four chefs, and each has a regional specialtyCantonese, Hunan, Peking, and Szechuanleading me to guess that all that yelling (reprised on a second visit, but not a third) is the result of authority spread too thin.
The menu is longer on familiar dishes than exotic ones, in keeping with the restaurant’s design. Confucius’ modern decor is decidedly Western; the expensive downtown fusion restaurant I visit the day after my last Confucius meal uses the same cutting-edge dinnerware, which is actually pretty stunning. This isn’t the kind of Chinese restaurant where English speakers might need a translator; it’s located in upper Georgetown, so even if the restaurant did offer tripe, I doubt that many people would order it.
Sure, the cafe provides chopsticksif you ask for them. But the fried vegetable spring rolls aren’t any less awesome or authentic if you stab them with a fork; one bite produces an explosion of debris from its golden shell, and the cabbage filling is warm and steamy, but still crisp. In fact, we’re never so happy here as when we forget that we’re carnivores and stick to the produce. The string beans belie the season, their fresh-tasting sweetness cutting through their Szechuan glaze. The wilted spinach is good enough to complement any meat order, but tossed with slivers of garlic, it makes its own statement on a pile of rice. Texturally, the bean curd is perfect; the square-cut pieces are firm enough to hold shape and acquire a faintly crackly, brownish coating, but in your mouth, they turn almost instantly into a viscous mess of wonderment.
Too bad the menu is as long as it is. Confucius has a good handle on visuals, especially when it comes to presenting dishes such as General Tso’s chicken, golden shrimp, and orange beef, all of which look fabulous bedded on piles of bushy green broccoli. The problem is warmth; those gooey sweet sauces are much less appealing at room temperature, and since many dishes arrive less than hot (except for the golden shrimp, which is very good), we would have to inhale our dinner if we wanted to taste the food close to its ideal state. This, of course, is a problem. The layers of skin and fat on the Peking duck that I hold so dear are a turn-off when there’s no heat lurking beneath, and cold scallops make for good slingshot ammo, but not for very good food. The spareribs are oven-fresh, leaving a trail of steam behind as they’re brought from the kitchen to our table, but they turn out to be fatty and tough. Oops.
Granted, Confucius’ menu is so long that trying it all would require months that I can’t spare, and not all the meat dishes are dead on arrival; the cinnamon-scented beef noodle soup is hot enough to blister your tongue and hauntingly complexgood news to anyone who’s under the weather and living within the restaurant’s free-delivery zone. Confucius is in disarray now, but it could have a future; no restaurateur who takes the time to pick out plates this nice is going to give up easily.
Confucius Cafe, 1721 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 342-3200.
The chickens at Crisp & Juicy are a mess. They’re also unforgettablesticky with spices and saturated with enough wood-fire smoke that my car still smells vaguely of the one I brought home. The takeout mostly roasts a lot of chickens, and that’s the key; when juice drips from a bird in the rotisserie, it’s bound to land on another chicken or into the fire, which in turn spits the flavorful liquid back up to where it came from. The end result is, well, crisp and juicy. The counter people can be stingy about giving out sauce (there are three kinds), so save yourself the hassle and just ask for the green stuff; it’s pepper-hot and cilantro-clean, great for dipping fried yucca as well as pouring over your bird.
Crisp & Juicy, 4540 Lee Highway, Arlington, (703) 243-4222.Brett Anderson
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