by Cynthia Hacinli
My neighbors in Friendship Heights mooned over the sign for weeks. Meiwah, the popular if not wildly adventurous downtown Chinese restaurant, was opening an outpost in our neighborhood. An just to whet everyone's collective appetite for Tingkling Bells Pork, a massive plastic banner had been plastered across the gleaming glass building where the La family's second restaurant would be.
It is perhaps a reflection on the state of dining in upper Northwest DC and Chevy Chase that a banner could cause this much of a stir. But really good restaurants are rare in Friendship Heights. Aside from the underrated Terrazza, a regional Italian star tucked away at Western and Wisconsin, the landscape is littered with mostly mediocre chains able to afford the high rents.
Meiwah was packed from the day it opened. Parents brought the kids. Empty-nesters from luxury apartments nearby brought friends. An the pompadoured mogul Robert Haft brought his cronies. The place is certainly handsome enough, with glossy wood floors, post-modern lighting, and eggplant-colored walls. For ethnic footnotes, look to a chest-high porcelain vase and a ceramic planter or two. By day, banks of oversize windows let the light stream in. A roomy outdoor terrace at the far end hints at wontons under the stars next spring.
The menu is a carbon copy of the one in downtown DC except for an extensive offering of sushi and other Japanese standbys. Which is to say that it's Cantonese with a smattering of Szechwan and Hunan dishes. The culinary kinky won't be enraptured here. There are no odd sea critters, just familiar fare. That doesn't mean you can't dine well. But don't expect the far-reaching menus of offbeat dishes you'd find at restaurants such as Miu Kee in Falls Church or New Fortune in Gaithersburg, places that cater mostly to Asians.
Good starters include crispy, flash-fried whole Cornish hen, salt-spiced squid ringlets and tentacles, gossamer half-moon pork-and-shrimp dumplings, and spareribs crusty with hoisin sauce. Cold sesame noodles are a fragrant tangle in a pool of dark soy, sesame oil, and sesame seeds. An cold fiery Chinese cabbage is a dead ringer of Korean kimchee. For crunch, try crisp tender snow peas or asparagus in other ways, too, most notably in a stir-fry and a spiced salt version similar to the squid.
The best entrees have been big-ticket items. Perfect whole flounder or sea bass, steamed with scallions and paired wit ha soy-sherry dipping sauce, melts on the tongue. Beijing duck is all crisp skin and moist, tender meat, carved paper-thin at tableside, and the kitchen isn't stingy with pancakes for wrapping these precious morsels in. Salt-spiced jumbo shrimp is the shell, redolent of garlic and hot peppers, is a finger licker. Shrimp in black-bean sauce is one of the better stir-fry plates, and a whole-fish version- usually sea bass - soars as well. As for the Tinkling Bells Pork, it's a goopy mess of wontons, flavorless shreds of chicken or pork, and predictable vegetables. Better to order caramelized sliced pork in plum sauce, a sleeper on the back of the menu.
Stir-fries in general are the least interesting thing going on, through all the usual suspects, from Kung Pao to General Tso, are hear. (Bill Clinton is said to be mad for bland old takeout chicken with broccoli.) If you're after comfort, Chinese Spaghetti with Meat Sauce and the crunch of water chestnuts will prove irresistible. Meiwah's Special Noodles with shrimp and roast pork are nicely done, too. Like the pea pods and asparagus, the stir-fried Chinese spinach is wonderful. With all this vegetable finesse one wonders how miso eggplant turned rubbery and watery.
Purists might sniff at the notion of sushi in a Chinese restaurant, but the sushi chef's offerings are better than fine. All the classic takes on sushi and sashimi are available, from yellowtail to eel to surf clam. Rolls range from spicy tuna or salmon to more elaborate numbers like dragon maki - eel and cucumber within and avocado without - and unconventional Kevin Roll, deep-fried spicy tuna. Crowds will want to try the showboat platters, one with 50 pieces of sushi, another with 68. Tempura and teriyakis are respectable too. In the absence of a neighborhood Japanese eatery, Meiwah fills a void.
In addition to offering hot tea and sake warm or cold, Meiwah has a full bar and serves a raft of cocktails with paper fans. The wine list is more robust than usual in Chinese restaurants, and all of the dozen or so bottles can be had by the glass as well. Desserts are pretty typical: ginger, green-tea, and other ice-creams.
Meiwah is an accommodating restaurant. You can ratchet up the heat of spicy dishes simply by asking. And a call in advance usually will ensure that a special request is filled. Utter a complaint and you probably won't be charged for the dish. During high-traffic hours when service sometimes lags, extra fortune cookies and orange wedges are packed to go with the leftover Moo Shu Pork. In a few short months, Meiwah has become a fixture in the neighborhood. It's hard to remember life without it.