You can always count on Imperial Chinese Seafood Restaurant.
Among the things you can count on is that the food will be a mixed bag. During any given meal there, half of the dishes will be delicious and half astoundingly insipid. But the Imperial still has the nicest decor of any Chinese restaurant in town, and the service is often above-average, as owner Johnny Hsu keeps a close eye on the proceedings.
Hsu opened Imperial thirteen years ago a few blocks farther north on Broadway, then moved to this spot in 1995. I'd eaten at the old site once ("Bland Ambition," May 18, 1994) and checked out the new one each year during my Best of Denver research; every time, the meal was that same mixed bag.
At a recent dinner there, my dining companion was Jim Newcomb, who'd won the honor when he came closest to predicting the date of the demise of the restaurant named after by-then-former Rockie Dante Bichette. Newcomb picked the Imperial because it was an old favorite he hadn't visited in a while, and he felt very bad about the selection when our experience was less than stellar. Part of the problem was that we were seated next to the bathrooms, in what must be the worst table in the place: For what seemed like an eternity, we had to look at a tray of dirty dishes, and at one point we were assaulted by a woman who was coughing so hard as she came out of the restroom area that she wound up visibly spraying our table. "Sorry," she said, when she saw our horrified faces. "I have asthma."
The other part of the problem, of course, was that mixed bag of dishes. An order of steamed dumplings ($5.50) brought six unremarkable specimens, filled with something so sopping and bland it could have been wet paper towels. The two tempura soft-shell crabs ($9.75) were better, lightly coated with batter and beautifully fried (a little less grease and they would have been perfect). The Imperial rolls ($3.95) were also fine: crispy-shelled and packed with an array of good stuff -- shredded cabbage, salty pork and beef, carrots and bok choy -- instead of the usual vermicelli and cabbage filler.
Since our entrees were both billed as "New Selections," we thought we might beat the odds -- but no such luck. The winner was the Chilean sea bass in black bean sauce ($12.75), a firm-fleshed piece of fish cooked until just done and still juicy, awash in a concentrated black-bean concoction that was not quite sweet and faintly salty. (If we had any complaints, it was that the generously portioned dish -- which included rice, broccoli and carrots -- had been packed onto a too-small platter, so that any attempt to spoon sauce out from under the rest of the ingredients simply pushed vegetables off onto the table.) The loser was the Shanghai braised boneless half duck ($12.75), which we promptly renamed Shanghai braised tasteless half duck. The duck was squishy on the outside, which was acceptable, since this wasn't supposed to be crispy duck, but the flesh inside was stringy and chewy, which was not acceptable. And the sauce was so utterly devoid of flavor it seemed to have been made of nothing but water and egg whites.
The mixed message continued through dessert. While the mango ice cream ($1.50) was sweet and packed with fruity essence, the green tea ice cream ($1.50) tasted like the bottom of a box after it's been sitting in a damp attic.
Newcomb, a semi-retired guy who keeps busy playing the stock-market game, says he avoids giving advice to friends interested in investing. But I have some free advice for him: Odds are that dinner at the Imperial will be a 50-50 proposition.
The only thing constant at Denver's restaurants is change. In 2nd Helping, Kyle Wagner will return to the scene of previous reviews to find out what's now cooking in their kitchens.
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