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A Vegetarian Chinese Phoenix In Beverly Hills

January 24, 1986|MAX JACOBSON

My misbegotten friends in the East continually raise their eyebrows whenever I boast about California restaurants.

To them, the food here is some ungodly creation they want to seal up in child-proof Tupperware, or a glorified version of rice and veggies. We, of course, know better. It's just that some things here are, well, rather unusual. One of them happens to be Chinese vegetarian cuisine.

Fung Wong specializes in this cooking style, which is to plain rice and veggies what differential calculus is to arithmetic. Fung Wong is also Chinese for phoenix, the colorful bird of Chinese legend. Somehow, a phoenix has landed smack in the middle of Beverly Hills and is displaying its plumage in the guise of an exciting new restaurant.

The interior is cool and placid, done up in pastels and etched glass. The waiters are placid, too, and they approach you softly, speaking in almost hushed tones. Their service is unusually good.

Many of the specialties make use of curious ingredients like wheat gluten, soy protein and milk extracts. With these things classical Chinese dishes can be reproduced. The menu is approved by the American Heart Assn., and it took considerable heart for owner Richard Marquez to open this place, because these are not exactly mainstream foods.

The menu is divided into two sections: vegetarian and seafood. There is no meat or poultry. Vegetarian appetizers are often trompe l'oeil like sweet-and-sour "pork" (part of the appetizer platter), which is delightful but not as tender as the prototype. The gum lo won ton come with a nice dipping sauce and are as light as model airplanes, but the filling is as tough as rubber cement. Pass on those. Mandarin "chicken salad" is a piquant combination of julienne "chicken," white sesame, lettuce and scallions. Marvelous. Seafood appetizers include Fung Wong pot stickers and seaweed shrimp rolls. The pot stickers need something, a little cilantro perhaps, because they taste too much like gefilte fish. The shrimp rolls are perfect.

The chef is Kan Kwong Lim, formerly with Fragrant Vegetable, the restaurant that introduced this cuisine to Southern California. Some of Lim's main dishes are really creative. A special Peking "duck" nearly passes for the real thing, but is lighter on the palate and the pocketbook. The "duck skin" is quite crispy, and nicely perfumed. Minced "squab" in lettuce leaves actually surpasses the original. It is a tempting mixture of roasted pine nuts, diced bamboo, crispy rice noodles and finely minced "squab." You roll it up in a lettuce leaf with hoisin sauce and eat it with the fingers.

Many of the best dishes use only simple vegetables. Sizzling supreme is $7.95 and worth every penny. Slices of sauteed eggplant are one of the best dishes in town. Vegetable chow mein uses crispy noodles and is far superior to most chow mein dishes. The seafood is acceptable, even pleasant, but certainly no better than that in a seafood restaurant. It might be best to stick primarily to vegetarian specialties, and then to balance the meal with some seafood. But be sure not to miss those shrimp rolls.

Chinese vegetarian cuisine evolved from Buddhism, and its myriad of flavors often remind me of my travels in Taiwan. I had a haunting visit to Sze Tou Shan, a Buddhist monastery at the summit of an arduous trail on a peaceful, forested mountain. It is occupied by an order of monks, three of whom greeted me when I arrived at dusk for a spectacularly elaborate dinner. The monks, it turned out, eat twice daily; in between, they basically pray. Yet somehow amid all this tranquility, they farm, harvest and work absolute culinary magic with the simplest of nature's gifts. I intended only an overnight stay, but was completely overcome by the timelessness, by the scent of fresh herbs and simply by watching the sunrise. I stayed a week.

Perhaps this prejudices me in favor of this cuisine and, in fact, my companions enjoyed Fung Wong less than I did. There are flaws. The desserts need work. The only good one, a wonderful tapioca pudding with lotus seed, was available only one of the three times I ate there. Do not eat the cheesecake. The chef is talented, but he is playing to an audience that he is unsure of. Some dishes are a bit tentative, and need more fire. A little more dragon, less phoenix. Despite some shortcomings, Fung Wong is worthwhile, sincere and quite inexpensive. And there's nothing like it in the Eastern United States.

Fung Wong, 123 N. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills, (213) 854-3346. All major credit cards. Valet parking. Open seven days. Dinner for two (food only), $25-$40.

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