At times, Tony Cheng's cuisine equals its wonderful architecture


Tony Cheng's

Szechuan Restaurant

Where: 801 N. Charles St.

Hours: Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.

Credit Cards: AE, MC, V.

Features: Sichuan, Hunan and Mandarin cuisine.

Non-smoking section? Yes.

Call: 539-6666.

** 1/2

It was our first Chinese meal of the Year of the Sheep. Actually, though, I had to go look this information up. Tony Cheng's is not the type of restaurant that has the Chinese zodiac printed on its menus.

No indeed. Tony Cheng's, situated in one of those opulent Victorian town houses that Mount Vernon does so well, has pink table linens. Not to mention glossy crimson walls, ornate trim painted a tasteful gray, chandeliers, and a fire crackling away in a marble fireplace carved with dancing cherubs. (In such a lusciously old-fashioned setting the modern chrome chairs look cheap, but perhaps we shouldn't cavil when there's so much other lovely stuff to look at.)

Tony Cheng's is perhaps Baltimore's most famous Chinese restaurant, and is often touted as its best; but its performance has been a roller-coaster ride. At times, the cuisine has seemed as superb as the architecture; at others, dull dishes and spotty forks have mocked both the ambitions of the menu and the magnificence of the marble.

While the fare is still uneven, it won more thumbs up than otherwise this time around.

The king crab and asparagus soup ($9.95 for two) was loaded with crab, as at that price it should have been. But the asparagus tasted canned and had been cooked to mush, and the pale, pleasant flavor wasn't that much different from a regulation egg-drop's.

Other appetizers restored our faith. Spring rolls ($3.50) had a maximum of freshness and crunch with a minimum of oiliness, and the fried squid Taipei style ($6.95) was a revelation: thick fluted slices of superlatively tender seafood with a barely-there batter and thick, hoisin-style sauce for dipping.

Two entrees from the "chef's recommendations" list demonstrated just how good, and just how not-so-good, Tony Cheng's can be.

Shredded pork Peking style ($12.95) -- morsels of twice-cooked pork in a sweetish wine sauce, served with paper-thin pancakes, hoisin and scallions -- could have been wonderful, had the pork been lean instead of unappetizingly flabby.

The lemon chicken ($13.95) really showed the kitchen at its strength, though. This dish, so often candy-sweet and thickly battered, here was moist and gently sauteed, and elegantly turned out in a light, translucent sauce that struck just the right note between sweet and tart.

We did have one last quibble with Tony Cheng's: Specifically, its 40-cents per box charge for packing leftovers. Like the free glass water -- also endangered in some quarters -- the free doggy bag is an American tradition we should fight to preserve.

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