Orange County inches closer to Hong Kong with the opening of Lotus Court, a tasteful, supremely elegant Chinese restaurant in sleepy downtown Fullerton. The restaurant has five chefs from Hong Kong and lists a host of specialties--in all, almost 200 dishes are served on an arm-length, Cantonese-influenced menu.
It's a marble-floor pink palace, subtly lit and dominated by three frosted glass doors etched with Chinese floral designs that you can't take your eyes off.
Owner Sing Law and his wife Pansy have made the spacious, octagonal-shaped dining room a showcase for upscale Chinese furniture. Sit on one of the hand-carved chairs, then look up at the trompe l'oeil ceiling: a powder-blue sky with wispy white clouds. Oddly, there's a live seafood tank in the corner, mom-and-pop-restaurant style.
Get off to a bang-up start with one or two of the restaurant's rousing appetizers. Pot stickers are thick-skinned and juicy with golden brown sides and a dense meat filling. Something they call fried crab puffs taste exactly like a dish called crab Rangoon that you may have tried at Trader Vic's. It's kind of a made-up dish--a crispy won ton skin filled with a crab paste made with cream cheese--but it tastes great.
Purists, however, will go for more typical starters such as pork hock, jellyfish or some of the other traditional Chinese cold cuts. For $28, you can get a big platter that's ideal for about six people.
The soup course merits a serious look. There are Chinese banquet soups such as shark's fin and bird's nest, plus a variety of more modest favorites. I tried the dried scallop soup: ultra-thick and powerfully flavored, with thinly sliced black mushroom to offset the pungency of the scallops. It's a sorely neglected classic, and one that makes hot and sour soup taste like Campbell's.
As with any Cantonese restaurant worth its salt, seafood is the big ticket here. Live lobster is featured for only $7.95, served in the shell either steamed plain, with butter, with black bean and garlic, or a variety of other ways. I had mine the traditional Cantonese way, pan-fried with ginger and scallions. It's a bit of work to pick the meat out, but the reward is fresh and snappy.
Naturally you'll want to have something else from the tank. Expect to find flat fish (tilapia, flounder) or a Chinese standby such as catfish. Ask to have the fish steamed, the best way to exploit its freshness. Fresh, tiny clams are a must here too, generally pan-fried and smothered in a sauce. I had 72, which features the clams in a fiery, sesame oil-based satay sauce flecked with red pepper. It was the best dish I had there.
But there were a lot of good dishes. In fact, I only had one I didn't like, and I really should have known better than to order it. Among the dozen-odd shrimp dishes was one I had never seen, shrimp with pine nuts. The dish is prepared with frozen peas and toasted pine nuts, and I had no quarrel with either of them. The problem was the combination itself--the tastes clash violently.
If you're looking for an unusual shrimp dish that works, try the honey walnut shrimp. The nuts alone, coated in a crunchy glaze, are worth the price of the dish.
Not to be missed is the roast duck (143), a succulent, crisp-skinned bird subtly perfumed with anise. And as soon as they get fresh baodzi (steamed buns), I'll recommend the Peking duck--the restaurant has a first-rate plum sauce. Right now the dish is served in a flour tortilla, a bizarre and unworthy conceit.
Two excellent dishes are 107, the crisp pork chop with spicy salt in its light, crunchy batter, and 147, stuffed bean curd with minced shrimp, one of the most ethereal delights of Chinese cuisine. The adventurous palate may want to try the intense 94, sauteed fresh and dry squid, or 35, braised sea cucumber--a rubbery sea creature with an oddly lingering taste that goes down like a garden hose. On the other hand, 73, boiled geoduck, is a giant clam that actually looks like a garden hose . . . well, a bleached one. When thinly sliced it is a delicacy, with a flavor all its own.
Rice noodle dishes such as 184, black pepper beef chow fun, topped with tender brisket, are always a good bet. True, 165, salted fish and chicken-fried rice is intensely fishy and an acquired taste, but it's a personal favorite.
For dessert, try the sweet walnut paste--really a warm, soupy pudding--or sago with coconut cream, a tapioca-like starch in a sweet broth. If that sounds too Chinese, there's always the old invented-in-the-U.S.A. fortune cookie.
And it's not necessarily inauthentic--I understand fortune cookies have become the rage in Hong Kong these days.
Lotus Court is moderately priced, but you can order expensively here if you choose to. Appetizers are $2.75 to $28. Soups are $4.25 to $26. Main dishes are $3.95 to $19.95.
181 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton.
Open for lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner daily 5:30 to 9 p.m.