In Chinese cooking, anything described as "West Lake-style" is understood to have greater refinement, style and delicacy than run-of-the-mill offerings; the name refers to a district near Shanghai that, at least before the revolution, was known as a Park Avenue sort of place.
In Del Mar, a Chinese restaurant that opened some years ago took West Lake Garden as its name, a move either propitious or bold, depending on your point of view. Although nature denied it any sort of lake, the place is north of San Elijo Lagoon and east of the Pacific, and does occupy a somewhat pastoral setting on Carmel Valley Road.
West Lake Garden is particularly likable for its mood, which is rather quiet, gracious and slowly paced; in fact, when compared to most Chinese houses, the food can arrive in what seems a lazy and even haphazard schedule. Large windows provide a distant view of Torrey Pines State Reserve, and unusual, semi-enclosed booths give a special and quite nice sense of privacy.
Again compared to the great run of Chinese restaurants, the menu seems remarkably brief, but as brevity can be the soul of wit, so can it be the soul of cooking when the kitchen knows its stuff, which is sometimes the case here.
Not everything sampled in the course of two visits pleased--the shrimp in black bean sauce, for example, which can be a preparation of great subtlety, was so subtle as to make the black beans imperceptible to eye or taste bud. Coarsely chopped onions instead dominated the dish. And a crispy duck, while indeed crispy, was a skimpy specimen that needed a bit of fattening up before it could claim readiness for the table.
Even so, the place seems to make a specialty of duck. The menu lists Peking duck, if only for those who plan ahead, since two days notice is required. It is served with the flat, chewy steamed buns called "lotus cakes" that are de rigueur with this duck and with Mongolian barbecue in Beijing, and are preferable to the moo shu pancakes that most places offer. Again with advance notice, the restaurant will prepare a 10-course Peking duck dinner, for a minimum of eight guests at $16.50 each.
The appetizer list replaces breadth of choice with careful preparation. The egg rolls, without which no Chinese menu can exist in this country, are crisp and tasty, as opposed to the soggy, commercial offerings that have become increasingly common. Pot stickers, filled with a mince of vegetables and chicken, rather than the usual pork, are lighter and juicier than most. Other choices include fried won ton stuffed with seafood and a crisp chicken salad flavored with ginger and chopped nuts.
There is nothing novel among the soups--the West Lake soup is the familiar chicken-creamed corn combo by another name--but again, quality seems good, at least judged by a hot and sour of delicate rather than overwhelming pungency.
The kitchen does not go in for heavy spicing or bold use of Szechuan-style peppers, even in dishes that the menu notes as "hot and spicy." The West Lake spicy beef (a style of preparation that, like other styles, repeats with chicken and shrimp) was mild and reasonably flavorful. The meat, sometimes cut in rather large chunks, was dipped in batter, crisply fried and finished with a light, somewhat sweet sauce that could have used a bit more ginger. The supply of ginger in the ginger beef, on the other hand, was more on target, and the simple but rich brown sauce perfect for the meat.
The curry chicken, again listed as hot, again was not, but there was a good flavor of Chinese-style curry--it depends heavily on turmeric--in the cubes of chicken and assorted vegetables.
Most of the other entree choices repeat a few basic themes, such as beef, pork, chicken and scallops Szechuan, the usual sweet-and-sour and kung pao dishes, and almond and lemon chicken. The noodle offerings, primarily boiled noodles served in broth with vegetables and the desired meat or seafood, do differ from the pan-fried noodles offered elsewhere. The vegetable list runs to respectable length and includes such favorites as broccoli in oyster sauce, eggplant Szechuan and assorted vegetables allied with bean curd in a light, savory sauce.
WEST LAKE GARDEN
2334 Carmel Valley Road, Del Mar
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily.
Cost: With few exceptions, entrees range from $5.95 to $8.95; luncheon specials, priced at $4.50, include soup and egg roll.