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Formal Aura Enhances Superior Chinese Fare

March 19, 1992|DAVID NELSON | David Nelson regularly reviews restaurants for The Times in San Diego. His column also appears in Calendar on Fridays.

Crack open the Fortune Cookie and you find yourself in a setting exceedingly rare among the county's Chinese eateries: A formal restaurant that features servers in black tie, Western-style table settings and a stark, dramatic decor that makes just the barest references to Asia.

Formal restaurants of any stripe are increasingly harder to come by, and the day when a family dressed up to go out for Sunday dinner seems utterly gone, if fondly remembered. It is in any case especially nice to come upon the Fortune Cookie, since Chinese food may offer many delights, but the settings in which it usually is encountered do not. This large, high-ceilinged restaurant tends to be quite noisy when busy, but surprising care is taken to make the clientele comfortable and welcome. The long-stemmed carnation presented each woman when she enters is a particularly gracious touch borrowed from the customs of a more genteel age.

The menu presents itself aggressively and notes an emphasis on Hunan and Szechuan styles. Each dish is carefully annotated and includes a list of ingredients, and while the menu reads well, it soon seems repetitive--a goodly many offerings seem like minor variations on a major theme. The act of reading such notes as "in a house special white spicy sauce," "in a light special sauce," "in our gourmet sauce" and "in our chef's special sauce" quickly grows tiresome. And, although the spiciness of Hunan and Szechuan cooking always is welcome, you really want to vary the dinner somewhat--whether you're ordering for a party of two or 12--by balancing the hot and pungent dishes with mild, savory and sweet preparations. Mild dishes certainly are offered, but they are in the minority and generally seem far less interesting than those starred with the asterisk that indicates spicy heat.

The selection is nonetheless quite good, and so, by and large, is the cooking. The appetizer heading mentions all the usuals (egg rolls, ribs, barbecued pork) before coming to such pleasant surprises as the Szechuan slaw, a tangy tangle of shredded preserved carrots and cabbage, and the bao , oblong steamed meat dumplings served with a dip of cherry-red vinegar packed with shredded ginger. Minced chicken, increasingly available at local restaurants and sometimes offered as an entree, here concludes the appetizer list and is prepared with a wider-than-usual range of vegetables.

Most of the soups are familiar, but there is one notable change of pace, the Mandarin casserole (served for four or more), in which solids nearly force the liquid out of the bowl; it includes shrimp, minced ham, chicken, cabbage, noodles, bean curd, black mushrooms and more, and is something of a Chinese Mulligan stew.

The good, long lists of poultry, red meat and seafood possibilities avoid to a fair degree the annoying repetition common elsewhere, although, as noted earlier, menu descriptions have a way of making many dishes sound quite similar. A final page offers "Customized Supplemental Dishes," a bizarre heading that translates as "house specials;" this is the page to read first. But be aware that the specials are more highly priced.

Among these are the "Kung Pao Triple Delight," less familiar than it sounds, since it combines chicken, shrimp and scallops (beef would be more common) and substitutes cashews for the usual peanuts; a Hunan-style sauce completes the picture. Also in the Hunan style--which Fortune Cookie often interprets as requiring a touch of honey for sweetness--are pork chops stir-fried with onions, scallops and a sweet-hot sauce.

A somewhat similar sauce, quite attractively balanced and perfect for the dish, moistens the sesame chicken, or batter-fried shreds of white meat tossed with dried red chilies and a mince of ginger and garlic. The shar shrimp are notable for the restraint in the flavoring, which includes the thinnest possible slices of fresh chilies and thus could be incendiary. The shrimp themselves were fine, plump and flavorful, a situation that no longer can be taken for granted in this age of farm-raised seafood.

The vegetable list offers broccoli in no less than four methods, and it is excellent--absolutely excellent--moistened with oyster sauce. Other unusual dishes include the "chef's special chicken," pan-fried with cilantro; the Szechuan deep fried bean curd with sliced pork and vegetables; the crispy whole fish Hunan style, and the seafood platter, an assortment of shellfish and vegetables in a delicate, Cantonese-style white sauce. It should be noted that the superior wine list vastly outshines those at most Chinese houses and offers several good choices by the glass.

Fortune Cookie 16425 Bernardo Center Dr., Rancho Bernardo Calls: 451-8958 Hours: Lunch and dinner daily Cost: Entrees $7.50 to $17.95; dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $35 to $50.

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