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A Royal Time at Princess Garden

February 11, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Orange County has few satisfying Chinese restaurants. The authentic places near Little Saigon seem to revel in low-quality ingredients and can be uncomfortable catering to Western customers. The food at establishments that openly court a non-Asian clientele bears little resemblance to what Chinese people actually eat.

Cerritos, a city with an image and an economy already being buoyed by the new $60-million Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, is home to a restaurant that attempts to shatter the Chinese restaurant mold. Princess Garden is a branch of an upscale restaurant of the same name in London's swank Mayfair district. The Cerritos location is said to have cost nearly $2 million.

However, the management in Cerritos is selling far more than decor and service (both of which, incidentally, are first rate). The menu was designed by Chinese master chef Hoi Wing, a jet-age food consultant who divides his time among the superb Harbor Village restaurants in Hong Kong, San Francisco and Monterey Park, and other ventures.

Princess Garden caters to classical Chinese sensibilities on a menu that boasts everything from half a dozen types of shark's fin soup to items such as whole roast suckling pig (24-hour advance notice; $200), double-boiled partridge with ginseng root and braised bamboo marrow with bird's nest stuffing.

Chef Wing is also an innovator and does not hesitate to serve dishes such as his peacock blossom platter--a rather strange combination of shredded duck, fresh melon and glazed nuts--or what he calls stuffed dressed crab, where crab baked in individual shells is finished with a grated cheese topping (a twist few Chinese chefs would suggest, since many Chinese dislike cheese). Some would be tempted to call Wing's flights of fancy nouvelle Chinese cuisine. I just prefer to call it serious cooking.

One look around this place should persuade you that somebody, at least, is serious. Princess Garden is an enormous restaurant, with many small banquet rooms set back from the main dining area, a suave bar and lots of killer elegance. The main salle is Edwardian in its luxury, due in no small part to a two-story mahogany wall pan eled to reveal portions of upstairs dining rooms.

There are shimmering crystal chandeliers, arched windows, several live fish tanks and a gaudy floral carpet. Tables are draped in soft green linen. Waiters strut around officiously in black tuxedos.

If you have the time and inclination, plan a menu in advance. Nearly every page of Princess Garden's extensive menu has a special box marked "advance notice required," and this is where you find such dishes as whole superior abalone braised in essence of oyster (three days advance notice), Buddhist-style vegetable stew (one hour notice, serves 10 people) or steamed boneless chicken stuffed with minced shrimp, crab roe and vegetables (three hours notice).

It also helps to have an expense account. Some of these dishes, such as the abalone, are prohibitive ($160 per person, and the minimum order is four persons). But a few, such as the baked stuffed crab at $5, are no more expensive than items from the regular menu, and they are treats you may never forget.

These baked stuffed crab makes a particularly succulent beginning to a meal. It's crab meat deviled in a mild curry sauce, served in the hollowed out cavity of a small crab. The meat is incredibly moist and rich, the stuffing almost indescribably complex.

Even if you arrive spur of the moment, as many do, you'll find more than 100 dishes to catch the eye. One appetizer that is easy to share is deep-fried shrimp ball with sliced almonds. These are golden balls of a mousse-like shrimp mixture with a crisp outside skin.

Those curious about bamboo marrow--the white, spongy interior of the bamboo plant--should try it in a soup called bamboo marrow with crab claws, $16. It's an intensely flavorful broth that will serve four. (Other dishes featuring bamboo marrow are far more costly. Why? One of the managers informs me it costs more than $60 an ounce.)

As at most Chinese restaurants, live seafoods are a big draw. Ask for whole steelhead, a red-skinned relative of trout, and have it simply steamed with ginger and scallions. The flesh is as delicate as lily petals. Baked oysters in port wine is a revelation, the sweetness of the port playing off the sea tang of the oysters like a virtuoso. Sauteed clams, a Cantonese specialty, is one of the menu's true bargains at $9. Try the clams with an oddball preserved bean curd sauce, employed to unusual effect.

Poultry is often superb here. The simple roast chicken is crisp and juicy. Have it straight or, if you prefer, skinned and steamed and served with salty Chinese ham and baby bok choy. Squab is roasted whole or minced into lettuce cups. The most economical way to eat duck here is braised eight jewel-style, meaning that a large platter of the cut-up bird is graced with assorted meats, seafoods and vegetables.

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