There are some people you just don't want to have along when you're at a Chinese restaurant. Take my friend Peggy. She comes from a family of nine children and learned at an early age to take the best and the most from a plate before anybody else had a chance. What does this early training mean for her friends? At the last Chinese restaurant we went to, six of us watched helplessly as she took three of the eight spareribs and a full half of the lobster in lemon sauce. She has nerve, she really does.
Don't get me wrong. Away from the dinner table, Peggy is a generous, kind person. And if we're at a restaurant where the portions are doled out individually, she pretty much stays out of other people's plates. It's just that she isn't happy during a meal unless her plate is heaped high, whether she's hungry or not.
I know all this about Peggy from experience and have made it a point to avoid eating with her in family-style restaurants, Chinese or otherwise. But she caught me off guard with Gourmet 88.
"I think I found a restaurant you might want to review," she said innocently.
When I heard the name, I assumed it was some nouvelle-trendy hot spot. "All right," I said. "Sounds good. Let's go tonight. What's the food like?"
"It's Mandarin," she said.
On the way there, I told my friend Ed: "Remember to order a lot of the things you want or you'll be sorry."
"Come on," he said. "Nobody's that bad."
We found Gourmet 88 in a newish blue-gray building. Inside, Gourmet 88 was a comfortably elegant restaurant well-appointed in more cool, restful blues and grays. We were greeted enthusiastically at the desk by several people and directed to our table. Peggy and her husband Stuart were waiting for us and had already made remarkable headway into an order of pan-fried, meat-filled dumplings and steamed, meatless dumplings; that is to say, most of the stuffed noodle items were already sitting on Peggy's plate. I gave Ed a meaningful look, which became more meaningful as we realized how delicious these dumplings were and how few we got to enjoy.
"Let's just order tons of food," Ed said.
"Let's," Peggy said.
And that is precisely what we did. We ordered--and ate--with abandon. The menu is large, but well-organized and not intimidating, and full of familiar Mandarin favorites. We had two more appetizers, a wonderful egg roll, and delicious, sweet and very red spareribs. For the rest of the meal, we ordered heavily from the Chef's Specialties on the first page.
Blander than the foods from hotter climates, Mandarin Chinese food comes as balm to those who have been scalding their taste buds on Thai and Sichuan chilies and peppers. While almost all the dishes we ordered were starred as "spicy dishes," we ate nothing a young child couldn't handle.
I loved the sesame beef, chewy bites of meat that had been almost caramelized in a tangerine sauce and topped with roasted sesame seeds: While neither as dry or as chewy as jerky, it had a similar condensed, revelatory flavor. Peggy, luckily, found the crispy-chewiness undesirable, so I ate without undue competition. The race was on, however, for the crispy whole fish, which was clearly Peggy's dish of choice. A whole grim-faced fried snapper came with a terrifically tasty, sweet, mildly pungent brown sauce. We all got at least a chunk before Peggy claimed it. She also preyed heavily on the plump, rich shrimp with macadamia nuts and left us most of the salted shrimp, which came fried with their shells and heads still on and were just a little too peculiar for her, but not, thankfully, for us.
Frankly, the portions at Gourmet 88 are so generous and the prices so reasonable that even with the presence of hard-eating Peggy, we all got more than enough to eat without undue expense or resentment. Peggy did pick out most of the plump scallops from the lemon scallops, though.
The braised string beans, fresh, crisp and delightfully seasoned, were a big hit, while the hot, spiced eggplant and broccoli were a little too limp and sweet for us, and not spicy enough.
Throughout dinner, the service waffled between attentive and overeager; waiters kept trying to clear plates before we were done. Peggy literally snarled at them; had they known what a mortal danger their fingers were in, I think they would have thought twice about reaching for her food. Also, we were visited by various managers, one after the other, who inquired repeatedly, with the kind of enthusiasm found only in new restaurants, if everything was all right.
Everything was all right, excellent, in fact. We finished with fortune cookies and fresh orange wedges and talked about how the next time we'd try the cold duckling salad or one of the hot sizzling plates, for even with Peggy in tow, we couldn't try everything that appealed to us on the menu.
Recommended dishes: Egg roll, $4.25; pan-fried and steamed dumplings (especially the meatless), $5.25; crispy whole fish, $16.95; shrimp with macadamia nuts, $10.50; sesame beef, $10.50; braised string beans, $6.50.
\o7 Gourmet 88 Mandarin Cuisine, 315 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. (818) 547-9488. Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Free parking. Beer and wine. American Express, MasterCard, Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $20 to $45.\f7