Good meals rally a few senses: If it tastes and smells delicious, that is enough. Great repasts may encompass even more, like the sizzle of crispy rice as it comes to the table and the feeling as it pops between our molars. An exceptional dinner, though, goes beyond the senses. It tells a story, shares a philosophy, and nourishes our bodies.
Chef Guo Wenjun, known in the U.S. as Anthony Guo, seeks to accomplish the last of these feats at his eponymous restaurant. With a keen sense of drama as well as a deft hand, he creates an experience even the most jaded of diners are likely to find magical.
The evening begins with the chime of a doorbell, alerting the server that diners have arrived. Given its covered windows and strip-mall location, the restaurant has a speakeasy vibe that might conjure a feeling of the illicit. The smile and kind compliments of a server dressed in golden traditional Chinese formal attire help to allay suspicions.
Guo’s alchemical command of the edible is on display right from the start. Once diners are seated, the server raises yellow lacquered cloches (the same ones that have covered the meals of politicians the world over, according to photos on the menu) to reveal the Eastern Rising Sun Assorted Sampler. It’s a mountain scene illustrated with everything from a single daintily poached shrimp to shaved cucumber skin as fine as a strand of hair.
As soon as the diner finishes each course, it’s efficiently whisked away and replaced by another, perhaps too quickly for some, though the 16-course meal would last longer than its comfortable two hours if there were more breathing room. The first plate gives way to Fruit of Eternal Life. It looks like a soft-boiled egg, presented in a golden cup. But a taste reveals a ticklingly fresh purée of peaches.
Guo, a native of Zhengzhou in the Henan province, created the dish for a military leader who dined every year at Diaoyutai Garden Villa International Club in Beijing to celebrate his birthday. “Peaches are a symbol of longevity in China,” Guo explained to us through Mandarin interpreter Ziyun Xu. “It represents heavenly fruit. We all want to have a good, healthy, and long life.”
The chef himself almost didn’t have one. He was seriously ill for six months at the age of 14. It led him to quit school, but his father, a journeyman chef, set up an apprenticeship for his son under Ding Guangzhou, a seventh-generation practitioner in the art of imperial Chinese cookery. “My father said, ‘You need to learn from the best of the best to have a bright future,’” recalls Guo.
He moved up the ranks in Ding’s kitchen, but he credits himself with conceiving something different from the ancient, highly traditional fare that was Ding’s bread and butter. “I am the creator of the healthy version of imperial cuisine in China,” Guo maintains. “It’s not really like the old, where they didn’t pay a lot of attention to nutrition.”
That means Guo emphasizes the natural flavors of his high-quality ingredients over heavy seasonings. In fact, there are dishes in which he doesn’t use a crystal of salt, and diners are none the wiser. For example, the Chef Guo Signature Pork Chop is dressed in an orange sauce so bright it almost glows. It’s made of tomatoes and pickled mustard. The meat itself is actually a patty that combines pork with tangerine peel, Chinese pickles, and water chestnuts for extra crunch. A single homemade Pocky stick, still dripping with warm chocolate, finishes the oddly satisfying plate. Another of the chef’s best dishes on the current 16-course menu is an Australian lobster tail presented in a creamy purée of mustard greens sharpened with wasabi for a big flavor as wholesome as it is green.
Guo’s eye toward health also shines in the Wild Green Stir-Fried Rice. Contained in a crispy dough bowl, millet explodes with the flavor of chives. In traditional Chinese medicine, says Guo, people are encouraged to eat a half-pound of the allium to feel its healing effects. “That’s almost like mission impossible,” the chef says. But he creates a fine purée that suffuses the grain with the flavor (and health benefits) of chive.
But don’t call Guo’s oeuvre health food. Some of his greatest hits are unapologetically adipose. Take, for example, the foie gras, presented in what looks like a modernist iron birdcage. His take on fatty liver is unusually clean-tasting thanks to a bath in water that’s flavored with cooking wine, ginger, and green onions. It’s presented topped with a sylphlike slice of sweet-and-sour fresh jujube (one of the only garnishes Guo repeats on more than one plate) to help mitigate the fatty fowl flavor.
Similarly fat-riddled A5 Wagyu beef makes an appearance in the form of tiny cubes seared just enough to render the tallow to the point of salivating seduction. It’s served with a tangle of chile threads and what looks like a Jenga tower of fried apples.
Though Guo says that his goal is to make his entire menu “Instagram-worthy,” one of his most compelling plates has the least eye appeal. Not that the elegant swirl of noodles in black bean sauce is exactly jolie laide. But this is a dish that people have slurped up long before social media likes. According to Guo, the recipe traces back to a prince of the Qing dynasty, and the intensely umami flavors resonate with history. He’s made it healthier with lean ground pork mixed into the rich sauce, but it’s still grandmother cooking at its finest. It’s served in the largest portion of the entire meal, but diners will still wish for more.
The only other aspect of a night at Chef Guo that might leave diners wanting is the service. There’s only one staffer on the floor on a quiet night, and when she isn’t comfortable enough with English to answer questions about the food, it can be a letdown. Another server who helped me was a fill-in who spoke fluent English but wasn’t well-versed in the offerings. Having a consistent, professional server on staff could make the difference between a four-and-a-half-star experience and a five-star one.
The flavors, presentation, and good intentions are above reproach, even amid a pandemic. Since reopening in November after eight months silent, Guo has been serving only one menu as opposed to his previous three. He says that this is due to difficulty sourcing ingredients. But even with that handicap, his sharply refined offerings are an adventure not to be missed. The meal itself is a story that diners will find themselves telling over and over.
A faux oak tree shades an ornate dining room that’s filled with lacquered yellow tableware. A TV plays Guo’s TV appearances and even a clip of one of his music videos for a look at his career in China.
Fruit of Eternal Life, pan-fried foie gras, Chef Guo signature noodles
6259 Little River Turnpike, Alexandria; chefguo.com
Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner; reservation only
Prix Fixe: $198
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