I am never very happy about second restaurants, having a stodgy notion that either No. 2 will be run with the left hand while No. 1 holds to its standards, or that they both will meet on a common ground of mediocrity. However, the recent rash of restaurants giving birth to offspring has persuaded me that, although it may not be wise, it is possible. If the child is allowed its own individuality, it could grow up to be a fine, upstanding restaurant.
Chinese restaurants multiply quietly and with seeming ease. I have encountered several recently, mostly moves out west. Chin Chin is repeating its enormously successful Sunset Strip restaurant in Brentwood. The Pasadena Panda strain, quietly present in the Chinatown and Santa Monica Plum Trees, is out in the open as the Panda Inn in the Westside Pavilion. Philip Chiang opened Mandarette on quite a different note from the Mandarin he manages in Beverly Hills, and the word is out that the well-thought-of Lotus West will open in Orange County.
The Panda Inn is a comfortable, carefully planned, peaceful place, offering relief from shopping confusion, but also well worth separate consideration. If parking at the Westside Pavilion is a deterrent, the Panda has an outside entrance with valet parking.
Our waiter was Jonathan Lee, who advised on and consented to only some of our choices. There is the usual long menu with the chef's specialties listed on the first page, a pleasant custom that makes decisions much simpler. On his recommendation--I might say insistence--we ate well of crisply finished, slightly sweet scallops with pea pods, broccoli and straw mushrooms, and the Panda Inn chicken strips, in a slightly different melange of tastes. I was somewhat less happy with velvet shrimp. A little heavy on the velvet, they failed in comparison with my blissful memory of the sauteed shrimp at the Pasadena Panda. I must admit, however, that the shrimp themselves were excellent. They make good dim sum and the Plum Tree beef (with orange peel and scallions) was a favorite in the Chinatown restaurant. A dish I would have tried if Lee had permitted was hot burned pork with peanut sauce.
Cocktails are served and three dishes for two will be about $20. The Panda Inn is in the Westside Pavilion, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (213) 470-7790.
Chin Chin is definitely for grazing, and possibly for being very young in. It is white and chrome and hard-surfaced. A seat at the counter offers the mesmerizing experience of watching five Chinese chefs at work. I must admit it is not my kind of place. I do not like sitting at counters, or on high stools around small tables. But I must also admit it has its virtues. The menu is brief, with dim sum, soups, salads, noodles and roasted meats.
Except for the roasted meats--both the pork and the duck were dry--everything is freshly prepared and, well, decent. Won ton soup is served in a glass bowl, looking pallid but tasting fine. The dim sum are not the best I have ever had but shiu mai , for example, were larger than most, generously filled, juicy and palatable. Service is pleasant and next week a patio will open for outdoor dining.
Three dishes for two will be about $19. No alcoholic beverages as of now. Chin Chin is at 11740 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood, (213) 826-2525.
Mandarette is Philip Chiang's personal contribution to our roster of seconds, offering relief from the complexities of the Mandarin. It is, he said, an informal Chinese cafe based on the small dishes he enjoyed in Hong Kong. It is Chinese family food, simpler than most restaurant food, tending to humbler ingredients but with its own rewards. The dishes come quickly, but so recently prepared--a bao (steamed bun), for instance, was still steaming--they are almost too hot to eat.
There are lighthearted dishes, such as the hot dog Mandarette, an excellent pork sausage enclosed in the bao with no other adornment except the soy, vinegar and peppered vinegar on the table--and needing no other.
And there are more serious dishes, such as beef with asparagus or squid with Chinese broccoli--both of them excellent. The beef tender, plentiful and full of flavor, the asparagus in diagonal cuts and at that perfect point when it is neither limp nor tough, but slightly crisp and still green. The broccoli stalks were a little tough, but the leaves were a fine color contrast with the ivory squid, as well as a sort of unctuous texture complement to their firmness.
The restaurant would be plain if it were not for two very large ancestor portraits on one wall with a modern abstract to keep them company. I found it a pleasant room with its high ceilings and big, bare windows. But it does not pretend to softness or luxury.