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Hit the Rojak

February 27, 1992|JONATHAN GOLD

When you're tired of arugula and goat cheese, and Maria Shriver's chicken salad at Schatzi has begun to pall, the exotic Malaysian salad rojak may be just the ticket, at least as served at San Gabriel's superb Yazmin Malaysian Restaurant.

Yazmin is a pretty little place, brightly lit and just big enough for 20, decorated with cheerful paintings of Malaysian village life, spic 'n' span enough for a festive brunch with your mother-in-law.

Yazmin is related to Pasadena's well-known restaurant Kuala Lumpur, but its flavors are more balanced and intense, aimed more at its overwhelmingly Malaysian clientele than at the sort of Anglo crowd that frequents the Pasadena restaurant. Yazmin is the kind of place that has a subtly different spice mixture for each curry on the menu--many--and even prepares three or four different kinds of rice .

"Shrimp is shrimp, chicken is chicken," the owner said helpfully one day. "Why on earth should they both go into the same sauce?"

Yazmin's bah kut teh --a version of the herbal soup that Malaysian Chinese men slurp as a morning-after tonic, the way a Mexican might menudo --is a clear, intense pork bouillon, slightly sweet, fragrant with star anise and completely skimmed of fat. The bouillon alone, traditionally the supreme test of a European chef, would get an "A" in any chef's school in the country. In the broth, meaty spareribs bob as crisp and flavorful as if they had been barbecued instead of boiled, and also pyramids of fried tofu.

Curry puffs are ethereal little empanadas stuffed with a fluffy mixture of ground pork and curried potatoes. Satay is the usual stuff, but is served with an extremely fine chile-peanut sauce. Acar is a spicy Malaysian pickle, stained bright yellow with turmeric and showered with ground peanuts. (Though acar may be available as an appetizer, it's not necessary to order the pickle--it pretty much comes with every entree.) Sambal shrimp, crunchy things sauteed in a spicy sauce that includes pineapple and tamarind, might be the basis of all tiki-bar food, a focused sweet-and-sour set against the milky tang of a mound of coconut rice. Hainanese chicken rice, a Malaysian street-food staple, is at the same time delicate and intensely gingery, served with a fiery chile sauce and what seems like a full quarter-chicken on the side.

Though not absolutely everything is great--stir-fried rice noodles have been greasy and overcooked, the gado-gado salad has been watery--Yazmin is possibly the only Southeast Asian restaurant in Los Angeles County that could more than hold its own among the highly competitive hawker stalls of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

There is an incredible "Indian" fish curry, perfectly poached fillets served in a Chinese clay pot with a mild, complex curry and meltingly tender eggplant; there is an impeccable Malaysian version of the Indonesian dish beef rendang , cooked in spices and coconut milk until it falls apart at the touch of a fork. Best of all may be nasi lemak , sweet coconut rice served with an array of garnishes--spicy squid tentacles, boiled egg, chicken rendang , chile anchovies, fried nuts with tiny fish--each to be mixed in to taste.

The rojak is spectacular, like some perfect, dimly remembered progenitor of the baroque concoctions at Beverly Hills "Pacific Rim" cafes: sliced fruits and vegetables carefully arranged into a kind of volcano formation, sprinkled with chopped peanuts and drizzled with a dark, sweet dressing. The watery crispness of jicama jams against the fruitier crunch of cucumber, the tart, fibrous sweetness of pineapple against the almost resinous sweetness of ripe mango.

There's a nice, slightly oily topnote from crumbly bits of fried tofu, and plenty of heat from sliced red chiles. The syrupy dressing, which seems to involve black soy sauce, vinegar and a dab of the dried shrimp paste blacan , inspired one friend to pick up his plate and lick it clean. His taste may have been better than his table manners.

Yazmin Malaysian Restaurant

706 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel, (818) 308-2036. Lunch Tuesday to Sunday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday 5 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Parking. Dinner for two, food only, $8-$15.

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