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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Beverly Hills Fan Club

April 15, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

In some circles, it is held that the less one pays for a bowl of noodles, the better it is likely to taste, because the people in the best position to keep a cook honest--extremely recent immigrants looking for a taste of home--tend generally to be those people with the least money to spend. It is almost axiomatic that a plate of chow fun at an Alhambra lunch counter will be more delicious than its equivalent in a brass-and-marble Cantonese seafood palace, that backstreet Chinatown dives serve by far the tastiest won ton.

Yet here we are on North Camden Drive, home to the plastic surgeon and the $150 shrink, steps away from Neiman-Marcus and the tourist shops of Rodeo, at the epicenter of the Beverly Hills dream. And here we are at the Mandarin, a tony old-line place that sort of bears the same relation to Chinese food that Lina Lee does to party frocks. Though the Mandarin is pretty well respected in serious food circles, the restaurant is better-known among its Beverly Hills regulars for its Chinese chicken salad than for its way with goose web or sea cucumber.

If you stride briskly straight ahead from the entrance at the Mandarin, nodding toward the to-go window and continuing past the open kitchen, you will find yourself in the Rice and Noodle Shop, which is more or less the Beverly Hills idea of a Chinese greasy spoon--chopstick dispensers, paper napkins, tabletops uncovered by white cloths--in the area that used to be the restaurant's banquet room. At one end of the Rice and Noodle Shop, a beautiful old curio cabinet supports a few trophies and a Chinese Checkers board; antique Oriental-magician posters and faux-naif prints decorate the burnished red-orange walls; bouncy '30s music blares from the restaurant's tape deck. The Rice and Noodle Shop can be jammed at lunchtime, but is oddly quiet in the evenings.

And despite the address, the place, which serves a surprisingly traditional menu of noodles and fried rice, tends toward plainness rather than Beverly Hills opulence, toward simple garnishes and direct flavors and really big bowls.

Pressed bean curd, an appetizer, is dressed with something that tastes overwhelmingly of raw soy sauce, without the mellow bite of garlic and star anise you might taste at, say, Mandarin Deli. Steamed dumplings, stuffed with pork or a diced vegetable mixture are fine, if a bit rubbery.

The rice dishes here, fan , seem infinitely more satisfying. Half a dozen lengths of crisply fried Chinese sausage, rich and winey, are served on a bed of bright-yellow curry-fried rice, slightly crunchy, garnished with a filmy veil of egg and a small pile of steamed baby bok choy. A small cup of gingery chicken broth is served alongside. (The soup, bok choy and curry-fried rice are also served with a small portion of the Mandarin's roast duck.) There is an interesting variant on Japanese curry rice, chicken and onions stir-fried with a sweetish Japanese-style curry sauce, garnished with ginger candied on the premises, intense enough to flavor the giant bowl of white rice it tops. The house oolong tea is very nice.

But the noodles here lack the springiness, the bite of the best Chinese noodles, and the simple chicken and pork broths, though well made, are less than exciting. Cold sesame noodles, garnished with cucumber shreds and dryish splinters of cold chicken, have the texture of library paste; these noodles show every sign of having been prepared hours in advance, rather than freshly boiled and chilled to order. Noodles in a Sichuan minced-chicken sauce are correct, spiked with tart bits of Sichuan pickle and chopped mushroom, but seem somehow bland--maybe the noodles would have been tastier with the usual pork instead of chicken. Noodles fried with Chinese vegetables and a bit of curry are dull; fettuccine-width fried rice noodles are tasty enough, though quite greasy. Maybe this is as good as you can do for noodles in the Beverly Hills triangle, but the new restaurants in Chinatown and the San Gabriel Valley have taught us to expect more.

The Rice and Noodle Shop

430 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (213) 272-0267. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Beer and wine. Cash only. Dinner for two, food only, $13-$18.

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