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RESTAURANT REVIEW / CHESTER'S ASIA : Orient Express : From Cantonese to Mandarin to Sichuan, the oldest Chinese eatery in Camarillo offers a culinary tour.

March 04, 1993|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the '60s my parents, who lived in Santa Barbara, heard about a wonderful Chinese restaurant in Camarillo. On occasion, driving home from Los Angeles, they would get off the highway and try to find this restaurant, poking along country roads that intersected endless fields of tomatoes and broccoli.

The fields are gone forever, but the oldest Chinese restaurant in Camarillo is still there. Chester's Asia Restaurant opened 29 years ago in what must have been one of the first shopping malls in the area.

Today you can date this shopping center by its stark, depressing plainness, the utter lack of Spanish architectural frills and the splendid old trees along Pickwick Drive.

Last year, Chester's remodeled its interior with gratifying results. The decor is slightly upper-class Asian, slightly Art Deco and utterly serene. The stately booths along the walls and the elegant tables are equally comfortable. One of the owners circles the room continuously, watchful and solicitous, making sure that everyone remains happy throughout the meal. Happiness is easily achieved here, for there are few disappointments with this menu, which is described as Cantonese, Mandarin and Sichuan.

Indeed, Chester's offers a kind of one-stop tour of regional Chinese cuisines. You can try Peking duck in the Northern tradition or a whole steamed fish typical of the Eastern coastal region. From the West comes a selection of spicy Sichuan-style dishes, some of which make use of an exotic, dark, seaweed-like fungus known as tree ear, common to that area. From Southern China one can order egg foo yung or egg roll, the sort of Cantonese dishes that Americans know best--or have certainly known the longest.

My favorite dish was the marvelous Peking duck. It first circled our table on a platter, whole and golden, while we tried to look appreciative. A few minutes later the platter smugly reappeared. The duck had been transformed into a pile of sliced dark tender meat, surrounded by perfect small rectangles of crunchy skin. By placing a piece of each into a fresh hot dumpling, adding a strip of pale green scallion and dipping it into a delicate plum sauce, we experienced food nirvana.

After this, the hot and sour soup seemed too thick and too bitter. It was only on subsequent visits that I developed an appreciation for the soups at Chester's. Egg flower soup was an extraordinarily comforting and comfortable soup, piping hot, with the texture of cold jellied consomme. Won ton soup had an excellent broth with meaty won tons and strips of roasted pork floating on top. Seafood bean cake soup was also quite good, replete with thin scallops and all kinds of mild-mannered ingredients.

You can get into trouble at Chester's if you end up with too many sweet dishes on the table. Traditionally, only a few sweet--or sweet and sour--dishes might have appeared in the middle of a 12-course Chinese feast. Americans, however, took to them so readily they now appear in gluttonous proportion on some Chinese menus. We had a dish called lemon fish that consisted of fried (excellent) fish immobilized by a thick lemon sauce with a touch of orange flavor. It was as sweet as candied apples.

Even the entree called "three flavors with garlic sauce" (shrimp, chicken and beef) was sweeter than it was spicy. It was admittedly preferable to an unusually bland appetizer of paper-wrapped chicken. But the winner was Sichuan beef with green peppers and carrots in a complex hot garlic sauce that was finally spicy enough.

By asking the waiter for suggestions, we ended up with a marvelous string bean dish. Bright green, with the texture of asparagus, the beans had been stir-fried with bits of flavorful pork. Another good vegetable dish featured cashews and black mushrooms, dried mushrooms with an intense flavor and "wonderful for the heart," according to the waiter. I also savored a vegetable chow mein with thin noodles that had been pan fried just short of crisp. It had lovely cabbage, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, celery and water chestnuts.

You may have to order it in advance, but it's well worth a telephone call to try a whole steamed fish. We were served a good sized red snapper that came with a clear, succulent brown sauce, cilantro sprigs and scallions. It was an impressive dish.

I have a feeling that my parents liked the idea, the mythology, of a wonderful undiscovered restaurant better than the reality of finding out that it didn't live up to the rumors. If only they had thought to call ahead; they could have enjoyed decades of this fine Chinese food.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Chester's Asia Restaurant, 2214-16 Pickwick Drive, Camarillo, (805) 482-6564, Open for lunch and dinner, Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Full bar. American Express, MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $11-$54.

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