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Tim Carman Discovers Royal Chinese Tasting Menus in an Alexandria Strip Mall

What the critics are saying this week

Chef Guo/Opentable

As the Washington Post’s more democratic food critic, Tim Carman is used to extolling the virtues of hidden gems in the suburbs. But in a review published by the newspaper’s magazine this week, Carman declares himself unprepared for the gap in location and opulence he found at Chef Guo, a theater for Chinese imperialist cooking that sits in a strip mall in between an Exxon station and a Latin bakery in Alexandria.

“Outside the front door is the exhaust-choked world of duty and survival,” Carman writes. “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.”

At Chef Guo, three tasting menus run from $98 — for the “Banquet of Eternal Bliss Hot Pot” — to $278 for the Banquet Filled with Precious Gem and Jade, which, as Carman notes, is more per person than the esteemed Minibar. The price tag yields delicacies such as whole Australian abalone, foie gras with jam, Japanese Kobe beef, and lobster tail in pumpkin soup. Carman clearly enjoys the food and the spectacle, but in a two-and-a-half star review, he outlines another big disconnect, the difference between masterful preparation and iffy 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.”

Elsewhere, Carman’s colleague Tom Sietsema reports from an early visit to Queen’s English, the new Hong Kong-style kitchen in Columbia Heights. The critic recommends that everyone who goes should try five-spice lamb ribs and the black and white (thanks to squid ink) hand-cut noodles:

“The noodles would probably be nice to eat on their own, but they’re tossed with a treasure trove of ingredients — Chinese celery, fresh squid treated to a hard char, prickly ash (similar to numbing Sichuan pepper) — and finished with a glaze of barrel-aged soy sauce that make them irresistible”

Over at Washingtonian, critic Ann Limpert added to the breathless coverage rolling in for Rooster & Owl. Limpert writes she was skeptical of another prix fixe place with a chef she’d never heard of, but the restaurant flouted her preconceptions “like a soccer mom with a soft spot for death metal.” In a three-star review, the critic says the hype over Rooster’s Carolina barbecue carrots is justified. She’s also smitten with endive leaves with romesco-ricotta dip and a dead ringer for cacio e pepe that pairs noodles made out of spiralized kohlrabi and celery root with black sesame brittle and cotija cheese. As for the prix fixe problem, Limpert commends the chef for putting out the proper amount of food over four courses:

“In Yuan Tang’s kitchen, dish sizes have been carefully calibrated so you leave sated but not stuffed—or wanting a post-dinner bowl of cereal. The elements of each creation are designed so that each person will get that magic bite—the one that includes every flavor on the plate. No tufts of foam or dots of sauce here.”

Blog roll: Been There, Eaten That visits the new Dirt in Ballston (before the fire), and Bitches Who Brunch checks out the rooftop scene at posh 12 Stories at the Wharf.

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