Yaik Sang, a restaurant on Hong Kong Island, is so renowned for its lemon chicken that customers constantly beg for the recipe and the management generously passes out mimeographed copies. Too bad it's so far to Hong Kong. On the other hand, why make the journey when very good lemon chicken, better than some in Hong Kong, is close at hand?
The dispenser of this notable chicken is the Fortune Fountain on West 3rd Street in Los Angeles. Crisply coated with batter, the chicken comes boned, sliced and anointed with a sauce that is sweet but not cloying and distinctly, but lightly, flavored with lemon. The restraint is refreshing in comparison to sauces that taste like melted lemon pie, which turn up even in Hong Kong.
Subtlety marks the Fortune Fountain in other ways. The atmosphere is subdued, more Japanese than one would expect in a Chinese restaurant. Instead of gaudy red and gold, the colors are simple: dark ceiling and carpet, pale walls decorated with collages in black, beige and white. The collages represent moo shu dishes, with a stylistic rendering of chopsticks and the pancakes in which the food is wrapped. One night, dark gray stones were arranged on a counter like a Kyoto garden. Napkin and chopsticks are tied together in a simple bundle. A spare bamboo trellis supports flowers in a tall, slim vase.
Despite the sophisticated look, there is a neighborly feel to the place, and dining is relaxed and unhurried. The restaurant underwent a change of owners more than a year ago, and the new regime is responsible for the new look. The menu emphasizes Mandarin and Sichuan cuisine, but even the spicy Sichuan dishes are judiciously seasoned--hot in a refined way, not brash and blazing.
Kung pao chicken had just a little chile, and, it was a relief to see, not many peanuts. Sometimes this dish seems like a circus snack, it is so laden with nuts. The sauce was lightly sweet, and the chicken was cooked to the point of juiciness, not dryness. Speaking of circus food, the house special shrimp looked almost like orange-glazed popcorn. It is a wonderful, light dish. A nearly imperceptible coating adds crispness to the shrimp, and the orange glaze is a faintly sweet tomato sauce.
The mixed vegetable plate demonstrates how less can be more. Instead of being dominated by seasonings and sauce, the assortment is left natural, with only a bit of thickened clear liquid clinging to the vegetables. The combination of Oriental and straw mushrooms, broccoli, carrots, baby corn, cabbage, water chestnuts, green pepper and pea pods has enough flavor by itself.
It was a surprise to find beef satay listed under appetizers, because one thinks of the grilled, skewered meat chunks in terms of Thai or Indonesian restaurants. The Fortune Fountain's rendition is nothing like local Thai satays. One difference is that the meat is fried rather than grilled. Chewy in texture, it is coated with sesame seeds and dipped in what the restaurant calls "Chinese secret sauce" rather than the peanut sauce usually associated with satay.
Each visit to the Fortune Fountain has yielded one or more dishes that stood above the average. Some of them were scallops with hot sauce, hot and sour chicken, shrimp over sizzling rice, braised shrimp and chow mein. There was nothing unusual about the chow mein. It was pleasing because the noodles were fresh and lightly handled rather than crusted or pasty.
Those moo shu collages indicate that several versions of this dish are on the menu. The choices are beef, chicken, pork or shrimp. If ordering a la carte from a Chinese menu is confusing, there are set dinners at $8.50 and $9.75 that include the satay and a good choice of entrees. A birthday or other special event can be celebrated with a dinner for 10 or more at $15 a plate and one day's notice.
The Fortune Fountain has a small wine list. Ranging through this produced the conclusion that white Zinfandel, which is slightly sweet but still crisp, is the best companion to food seasoned with spice and sugar, especially on a hot day. Montevina is the listed label.
Dinners end with an attractive structure of orange wedges in an orange shell, a presentation that adds to the impression of Japanese influence.
Fortune Fountain restaurant, 8408 West 3rd St., Los Angeles, (213) 655-3917. Open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Takes MasterCard and Visa. Reservations accepted.