I was once detained by airport officials for reasons never made entirely clear. A couple of humorless, gun-toting zealots took me to what they referred to as "the room" and left me there to wait, presumably in the hope that I would start to panic. This was a space wholly stripped of warmth or emotion; blank, dull walls, a bedraggled array of plastic chairs and harsh strip lighting in the low, prefab ceiling. The sole human touch came from that famous official photo of George W. Bush looking like a boy who's just learned a new swear word.
The interior decorator for the Department of Homeland Security has now been set to work by the new management of Hong Kong House at 8079 Kingston Pike, and he has largely succeeded in preserving the features of his trademark style. Admittedly, in a cursory nod to the obligations of the genre, POTUS has been replaced by a few desultory watercolors and a small fish tank has been added, but otherwise we are firmly in the kind of austere hinterland that to call brutalist—or even modernist—would unfairly lend dignity to the premises.
In the evenings a television plays, but at lunchtime silence is thick and, seemingly, compulsory. One would no more start a conversation here than during a college entrance exam, and raising a hand for the waiter brings with it all the self-consciousness of asking for extra paper.
Hong Kong House's chef, Peter Chang, has twice cooked for Chinese premier Hu Jintao, and such proximity to authoritarian power might go some way towards explaining both the air of repression and the cuisine's occasional ability to rise above it.
A shining light on the menu is the braised pork intestines with green hot pepper. These delicious alimentary slivers are pliant and delicate, offering a huge amount of pleasure. Of an almost oyster-like slipperiness, they are nonetheless surprisingly hearty and carnal, and are complemented perfectly by the simple accompaniment of peppers and onions.
The crispy shrimp with scallions are another success; the complex, tangy sauce briefly threatens to overpower but soon retreats to provide a warm and friendly balance of flavors.
Less happy are the braised fish fillets with chili sauce. The sauce, petroleum-dark and just as heavy, is spicy to an almost sarcastic degree and certainly much too bold for the anonymous fish (which I take to be sole). Peppercorns, black beans and chilis are combined to create an angry mess with high notes that are almost unbearably shrill. A sauce this aggressive should really be at the service of something crunchy and daring instead of meek, limp pieces of fish.
Just as disappointing are the fried pork dumplings. A gristly contradiction in terms, they are both tough and watery.
The big draw at lunchtime is the buffet, of course, which provides an unexpected diversity in both content and quality for $6.50. At the top end we have a pleasingly fiery Sichuan chicken with green pepper, and a generic but entirely competent sesame chicken. Shrimp dumplings, light and moist, also score highly.
A little lower down we encounter a decent if bland shrimp with water chestnuts and mange tout, and a spicy beef that is only faintly rubbery. Lurking at the bottom, however, is a handful of real horrors, chief among them the crab rangoons.
Hatcher of this curate's egg is owner Gan Deng, whose effusive subservience is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the visit. The man has a huge amount of pride in his restaurant and the strange loyalty one feels towards him is far more consistent than one's view of his erratic menu.
With the likes of P.F. Chang's just up the road, however, the strategy of Hong Kong House to rely on bursts of brilliance rather than mainstream reliability is perhaps a dangerous one. The cuisine may largely belie the restaurant's talent for the sepulchral, but I hope its prospects aren't as bleak as its furnishings.