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RESTAURANTS / MAX JACOBSON : Chinet Is Patented in Irvine

August 20, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

If a computer were programmed to generate the perfect Chinese restaurant for the '90s, it would probably spit out a model like Chinet. This chic Irvine mall space combines a relaxing, pastel decor, an articulate, impeccably groomed staff and--the critical factor--a menu that reads like a marketing report on our favorite Chinese dishes. In five years, you may see dozens of places just like it.

It's obviously aware of its market. The first giveaway is the little logo on the side of the building: two neon chopsticks protruding at an angle out of an illuminated rice bowl.

Inside, you get more marketing and packaging. The waiters wear black designer shirts with moss-green aprons, and (get this) New Age music by George Winston plays in the background. Tea is poured into tiny porcelain cups with tiny handles.

And then there's the oddly shaped paper menu, evidently created by computer graphics. It folds out like a road map, and you'll quickly see that it plays by the book.

I was psychologically prepared to jump all over this calculated menu, but to my surprise, I discovered that I actually liked what I was eating. Oh, the food is slightly Americanized, but that's not to say it's inauthentic. You'll find a few combination sautes that no Chinese grandmother ever heard of (like "Chinese festival," a silly platter of shrimp, chicken, barbecued pork, lobster and mixed vegetables), and you certainly can't find Chinatown staples such as squid, clams, gammon, cilantro or anise in any of these recipes.

But this is good, basic, Chinese cooking--a little underspiced, perhaps, but undeniably fresh and clean tasting. And even if this menu does not treat our palates with the utmost respect, someone in the kitchen has had the good sense to leave excess sugar and MSG out of the wok.

Many suburban Chinese restaurants serve a dish they call crab puff, crab Rangoon (a name stolen from Trader Vic's) or crab won ton, essentially a fried won ton skin with a crab-flavored cream cheese filling. There's rarely more than a microscopic amount of crab meat inside.

Well, maybe someone at Chinet works for the Food and Drug Administration's labeling authority, because on this menu, perhaps for the first time anywhere, they are openly called cream cheese won tons. That's what I call truth in advertising, and they're even pretty good: eight crisply fried pillows ready for dipping in a piquant red sauce.

Of course the menu lists universal Chinese appetizers like egg rolls, fried shrimp and chicken salad, which I resolutely refuse to order in a mall restaurant. There are more interesting choices available, anyway.

Chicken lettuce wrap is a mixture of minced chicken, bamboo shoot and crisp rice noodles that you roll up in lettuce leaves smeared with plum sauce. Some restaurants call it Chinese burrito. This is a tasty version, though it could be a lot better. The original recipe calls for black mushroom and pine nuts, additions which would add both flavor and dimension to the mix.

Pot stickers, those bite-sized pan-fried dumplings with the moist, crunchy skin, have become an overwhelming favorite in recent years. Chinet has a good idea in stuffing them with chicken instead of pork, because it lightens the dish considerably.

Another dish you can't go wrong with is peppercorn pork loin, which is lean, spicy pork chops cut up into bite-size pieces--dream food for Cajuns or kids who like it hot.

Not so Chinet's soups, which are shopping-mall bland.

Instead of ordering soup, dive right into an entree such as the Peking duck--expensive ($24) and worth it. Chinet presents the duck whole as a perfectly roasted, crisp-skinned masterpiece before carving it up and serving it. The duck meat and attached skin arrives on a platter with light crepes, fresh scallion and an intense plum sauce, easily the most beautiful version I've seen outside a Chinese neighborhood in some time. A Chinese might complain that the lacquered skin does not taste of anise and ginger, as tradition commands. Personally, I'm not Chinese.

The spicy dishes are marked with a red diamond, and one of the best is double-color shrimp. They come in a side-by-side display of red and white, one braised in a piquant tomato and chili sauce, the other in a delicate broth of rice wine and garlic.

Another good hot dish is shredded pork with Sichuan pickled vegetables. This is a family-style dish all over China, and the chefs here have hardly changed it one bit.

The simple vegetable dishes--such as dry-braised string beans, sauteed spinach or Sichuan eggplant--are outstanding, but steer clear of the vegetarian combinations. Buddha's feast is blandness personified, and the sauce on the hot garlic mixed vegetables turns out to be an indiscriminate dose of vinegar.

Chinet's two desserts strike me as vaguely Western, although both are in the classical Chinese repertory. One is a roughhouse tapioca pudding, served warm, the other a flaky, rice flour bun with a sweet, red-bean paste filling. I think maybe someone sneaked them by the computer.

Chinet is moderately priced. Appetizers are $2.25 to $6.50. Soups are $3.95 to $9.50. Main dishes are $5.95 to $15.50.


3965 Alton Parkway, Irvine.

(714) 752-2651.

Open Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 10 p.m.

American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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