There could hardly be a more complicated and delicate set of negotiations than that involved in eating a Chinese meal.
As the platters go round the table, you think, "Boy, that really looks good. I'd like to take a lot." But you don't, because it would brand you as greedy and selfish. So you settle for one shrimp and a noble image. Then someone else takes six. "What a grabby clod," you think angrily. And you berate yourself for allowing this insensitive glutton to take advantage. Thus character is revealed, self-hate is induced and friendships are shattered, without a word, over a Chinese lunch.
Well, that won't happen at Arc-en-Ciel, a new Chinese restaurant across from the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Here the waiters will dish up the portions even if there are only three at the table. Thus, the stress of self-service is removed. And you are allowed to relax in this graceful dining room, soothed by its cool lavender hues, and enjoy some first-rate dishes.
At the top of my list is the chicken with pine nuts, a pretty, light combination of finely cut chicken, ham, peas and celery, plus the pine nuts and a subtle dash of Chinese wine.
Even that old standby, fried won ton, takes on new character here as the garnish for a platter of food. The won tons ring a stir-fry of beef, chicken and shrimp that is lightened with vegetables such as pea pods and broccoli. That other old standby, the red dipping sauce, is on the side.
Hunan-style fish fillet arrives on a sizzling platter, and a sauce that includes tiny bits of sweet red pepper and green onion is poured over the crunchy, deep-fried fish portions at the table. Quite interesting.
Setting up our own miniature banquet, a group of six gathered for lunch and a parade of dishes that left us with no complaints. When someone requested broccoli beef with bamboo shoots, I was disappointed because it sounded so run of the mill. However, deft preparation made it one of the better dishes.
The simplest possible combination, sauteed pea pods with water chestnuts, was absolutely wonderful, although there was almost no seasoning beyond a dash of sugar. The sauteed bean sprouts, lightly flavored with ginger root, were wonderful, too.
The spicy fried spare ribs weren't very spicy, but the platter was generously loaded for the price, $8. We also had minced squab, which was spooned into neat lettuce cups and looked very nice there, with red and green pepper dice for ornament. The cashew chicken emphasized the chicken, not the nuts. And the platter of rainbow shrimp (batter coated, deep fried and covered with sweet, slightly spicy orange sauce) was as generously laden with shrimp as the rib platter had been with bones.
We didn't plan to save the best for last, but the candied bananas that we had for dessert were terrific. Coated with crackly crystal candy and embedded with sesame seeds, the bananas remained firmly crisp rather than deteriorating to sogginess as they sat.
Arc-en-Ciel (the name is French for rainbow) was opened five months ago by Keshiu Liu, former chef at the Shanghai Winter Garden. Liu's children studied in France, and he has spent time there, thus the choice of a French name.
The wine list includes the lackluster Wan Fu, which comes from France. A much better choice is Beringer's 1978 Petite Sirah, a wine that Beringer no longer makes. The grapes came from old Napa Valley vines, and the wine is a great match for full-flavored Chinese food, even standing up to sticky-sweet tangerine beef.
Arc-en-Ciel Chinese restaurant, 3377 Wilshire Blvd . (on the second floor), Los Angeles. For reservations, call (213) 388-7868. Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 4 to 10 p.m. daily. Accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Free parking for two hours during the day in the basement garage of the building. Enter on Alexandria. Unlimited parking at night.