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Firing Up the Annual Mongolian Barbecue

August 20, 1987|DAVID NELSON

LA JOLLA — When Shirley and David Rubel, he a retired Navy rear admiral, invited some pals over for dinner recently, they did what many Americans do under similar circumstances by pulling a few things out of the freezer.

Among the provisions were 60 pounds of thinly sliced raw beef, the meat cut from 8 legs of lamb, 4 pork legs and 12 turkey breasts, plus enough chicken to feed a hamlet. All the butchering had been done by David, who started his work 30 days before the Aug. 10 dinner so that all the meat would be trimmed to his exact specifications, no fat or gristle allowed, thanks just the same.

The meat formed the centerpiece of the Rubels' famed Mongolian barbecue, given more or less annually over the past couple of decades, usually on the Monday after the Jewel Ball (so go La Jolla social schedules). One hundred twenty guests, many of them supporters of the San Diego Symphony, the San Diego Opera, the UC San Diego Cancer Center and other organizations with which the hosts are affiliated, turned out in fancy Chinese dress for the yearly food fest and tea-sipping competition.

Shirley Rubel claims to have introduced Mongolian barbecue to San Diego in advance of several restaurants that now make it a specialty, and with such success that try as she might to take a year off, she finds herself sitting down to write her shopping list every February.

Until the day of the party itself, the hosts do all the work themselves. The work commences in late June, when Shirley begins stuffing and shaping 150 pieces of each of the six or seven types of dim sum (savory pastries) served as appetizers. Other tasks begin much earlier, including composing the rhyming invitations, designing Oriental centerpieces and shopping for exotic canned goods, which the Rubels purchase in such quantity that they said their favorite Chinese market always declares a dividend at that time.

Work closer to the party date includes such cheerful chores as emptying the house of furniture to make room for the dozen or more dinner tables; setting up the dragon near the pool that blows smoke rings into the warm August night, and hiring the staff of three cooks and various servers who handle the last-minute arrangements.

Over the years, the Rubels have acquired enough Chinese rice bowls, plates, chopstick rests and so forth to serve 150, as well as a deep freeze and an extra refrigerator to handle their seasonal provisions.

All this investment in time and labor has made the party quite a summer tradition, one most regular guests try never to miss. Among those waiting for their bowls to be filled by the cooks laboring at the huge, sheet-metal-topped grill were Elsie and Frank Weston, Dixie and Ken Unruh, Ingrid and Joe Hibben, Dottie and David Garfield, Marian and Wally Trevor, Merrilyn and Sam Arn, Jeanne Brace, and Dotti and Patrick Haggerty.

The meal started with imperial soup, a newly introduced course that Shirley jokingly said she had added to the menu at no extra charge; continued with the barbecue of many meats and many more garnishes, moistened with a dozen sauces, and finished with homemade meringues stuffed with lime cream. Chinese-style wine vinted in France helped the guests to wash it all down.

Others at the dinner were Anne and Abe Ratner, Athena and Charles May, Dorene and John Whitney, Lee and P.J. Maturo, Audrey and Ted Geisel, Luba Johnston and the hosts' son and daughter-in-law, Rick and Ginna Rubel.

April in Paris, October in New York, August in La Jolla--that's not a bad way to write your calendar, if you can get away with it.

However, these months and places have a significance beyond what immediately meets the eye, at least for the fortunate few who attend the annual April in Paris ball given every October at New York's Waldorf-Astoria; several members of this group gathered Friday at the home of Jeanne and Larry Lawrence to meet some 100 San Diegans and to get in the mood for the following evening's A Night in Monte Carlo at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art.

The locals were invited specifically to meet Prince Ivan Obolensky and his wife, Mary (Princess Ivan), who served as general chairman of several recent April in Paris galas. The Obolenskys came to town to collect the door prize--a week at the Hotel del Coronado--that they won at the last April in Paris, and timed their visit to coincide with the Lawrences' invitation to attend the La Jolla museum party. The couples have been acquainted for several years; Jeanne Lawrence recently has served as California chairman of the splashy Waldorf party that attracts international society and a good bit of the world's remaining titled aristocracy.

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