I'm seeking the great Chinese restaurant of Orange County. I haven't found it, but I can report one great-looking Chinese restaurant in Irvine. It's called Pavilion, not to be confused with the French restaurant of the same name at the Four Seasons Hotel at Fashion Island, although the Pavilion in Irvine is a slightly Frenchified restaurant that inclines to European-style service complete with forks and wine list.
On the outside it seems to be just the usual Southern California stucco version of a 10th-Century Chinese palace, but inside it's . . . well, Sino-Deco. In the middle of a spare, geometrical sort of dining room, where the corners at the ceiling are inset glass brick, stands a chic white statue of a palm tree. On the other side of the lobby there is another spare, geometrical room that is absolutely identical, right down to the white palm tree.
But my quest cannot be satisfied by looks alone, and it took the resolve of a Buddhist saint not to bolt after a glance at the appetizer menu, which is full of the most corrupt legacies of old-time Cantonese restaurants. An anthology of them can be ordered as the suggestively named Bo-Bo Platter: dull breaded shrimp, drab spring rolls, sweet-sour spare ribs smelling of cooking oil, fried won ton that are actually pretty good if all that appeals to you in won ton is flaky pastry (the amount of filling is about a quarter of a teaspoon), and a couple of sticks of barbecue beef, all to be warmed over a Sterno hibachi and eaten with the traditional catsup and mustard.
A familiar situation. I thought I'd try my usual clever way around it by ordering moo shu pork as an appetizer, but apart from the delicacy of the pancakes, this moo shu was no better than the Bo-Bo Platter. A fork analysis showed (1) no shreds of scrambled egg, (2) no lily buds ("golden needles"), (3) a minimum of cloud ear mushroom chunks and (4) vast quantities of mung bean sprouts. This was not moo shu pork. This was a chop suey taco.
Fortunately, after this, things started looking up. An appetizer with the unconvincing name Gold Cup turned out to be quite good--fried ground pork with bits of carrot and bell pepper served in a sort of won ton version of the fried tortilla cup--and the entrees were all well above the standard of the appetizers.
By far the most impressive was Jade Shrimp. First of all, the visuals were striking: shrimp in a vivid dark-green sauce arranged behind a fence of cucumber slices, beyond which was a sort of Garden of Eden of shaved and carved vegetables. I didn't eat the fanciful carrots and tomatoes, but the green shrimp sauce, based on pureed spinach, was luscious.
"Shrimp with pop rice" is an irresistible name. It turned out to be solid bars of popped--almost puffed--rice, hot out of the frying pan for the sizzling effect, topped with shrimp in a catsup-based sauce with pineapple. It was very tasty, though as the meal wore on I began to weary of the catsup-based sauces, which tend to have the harshest, most vinegary sort of sweet-sour flavor. For instance, the house specialty is fish rolls wrapped in won ton skin, and very delicate fish rolls they are, a connoisseur's Chinese dish, but they get the catsup sauce treatment.
Curiously, the waiter tried to warn me that the dish called vinegar sauteed chicken was rather sour. Fortunately, he was wrong--there's just the hint of vinegar here. In fact, it's almost like a French chicken sauteed in white wine with mushrooms and plenty of garlic, though rather heavier on ginger and water chestnut than the French usually go. It was not the only dish that seemed faintly European. Several are listed on the menu as this or that "In Chafing," which is not the name of a Chinese city but simply shorthand for "in a chafing dish." Veal is unusual on a Chinese menu at any time, and "veal in chafing," with its pea pods, baby corn, carrots, bamboo shoots and black mushrooms, is extremely mild-tasting, surprisingly like a continental dish.
On the whole, this menu favors Szechwan dishes of far more robust flavor, though relatively restrained in the chili pepper department. Shredded pork in a hot garlic sauce does not exactly blaze with peppers, though it's plenty garlicky. Orange peel chicken is full of peppers but not as hot as it looks, nor is there quite as much orange peel as one expects.
Pavilion is decidedly no chop suey joint. Appetizers run $3.50 to $8.50 and entrees $4.95 to $16.95. It is also considerably more formal than the usual Chinese restaurant, despite being located right next door to Bullwinkle's. And there is even a sign at the entrance instructing the diner that Pavilion appreciates proper attire.
PAVILION 14110 Culver Drive, Irvine
Open for lunch and dinner daily. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.