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Szechuan Pavilion used to be the hottest Chinese restaurant in town. The original place in Preston Center was hip and snappy-looking, with colorful Chinese kites, soft lights, and none of that Chinese kitsch. The Pavilion was fast-paced and stylish and lots of fun with good food. But in the life of a restaurant there are high points--at one time, Szechuan Pavilion had several clones and sister restaurants around town--and low ones. Unfortunately, on my last visit, Szechuan Pavilion seemed to be lost in the valley of fatigue.

We dropped in without reservations on a weeknight, and though no one else was waiting for a table, no one seemed interested in showing us to one, either. In fact, most of the staff's energy seemed to be absorbed in taking and filling take-out orders. We felt like intruder diners, demanding attention from people who had more important work elsewhere.

The hostess was on the phone most of the time and the delivery guy wore a track in the dining room floor as he passed from the kitchen to the front door loaded down with bags of food. We saw him more often than we saw our waiter.

Still, we managed to find the latter long enough to order some pot stickers, which we remembered as one of this restaurant's delights. How disappointing to instead bite into a clod of a wet dumpling holding a meatball-like wad of bland pork. Pot stickers are supposedly steamed until they stick, giving one side that luscious brown crispness that contrasts so nicely with the al dente dumpling; these had so much oil on them, they must have instead been sauteed, a popular short cut. Even the accompanying dish of soy dip was flavorless: Eyes closed, you would have thought it was salt water.

Proust's madeleines notwithstanding, the palate doesn't always have the best memory. That's why so much else besides the food is important in a restaurant. Attractive surroundings, good service, fine wine, and pleasant company don't just make a meal more enjoyable at the time; they can combine to actually color memories of it.

I remembered Szechuan Pavilion's Spicy Garlic Pork being wonderful and its Whole Crispy Fish delicious, striking the perfect unlikely balance among sweet, rich, clean, and crisp, and . But either I was really enjoying myself the last time I ate these dishes there, or the kitchen is tired of cooking. I did not recognize the chewy little slugs of meat in bland brown sauce that I was served.

The vegetable stir-fry was mediocre, too, the broccoli in it actually overcooked. How do you do that in a wok?

The Orange Beef was one of those neon-colored horrors that second-rate Chinese restaurants often make of this easily-ruined dish: saccharine, tough, and ugly. The plate of Special Prawns was the beef's first cousin.

All of the plates were brightened up with the universal hotel garnish: a red maraschino cherry.

Waiters can be overworked, cooks can have bad days, restaurants can have slumps. I hope that's what I stepped into at Szechuan Pavilion, but it seemed rather that the restaurant was so overwhelmed by take-out business that there was no time for customers dining in. Come to think of it, as we left I asked for a to-go menu, but they had run out.

--Mary Brown Malouf

Szechuan Pavilion, 8411 Preston Road (at Northwest Hwy.), 368-4303. Open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday, noon -11 p.m.; Sunday, noon-10:30 p.m.

Szechuan Pavilion:
Pot stickers $3.95
Spicy garlic pork $5.50

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