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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Sadly Suburban Servings : Happy Palace is a swank, comfortable Chinese restaurant with an extremely nice staff in Chatsworth. But the food is disappointingly bland.

April 30, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Chatsworth is a long way from Monterey Park, so I'd like to extend my sympathy to certain Chinese-speaking members of the staff at Happy Palace who make the commute daily. If they lived up here, there would be nothing for them to eat.

As so often, it isn't lack of skill that causes disappointment at Happy Palace. A team of able chefs prepares nearly 200 dishes, and even a few good ones that bob to the surface from time to time. But mostly, the food is bland, suburban stuff: muted flavors, a surfeit of oil, lots of salt and--though less so than many places of this genre--generous heaps of sugar.

It boggles the mind. Someone has obviously gone to a great deal of trouble to open a swank, Monterey Park-style Chinese restaurant in the northwest San Fernando Valley. Would it have been so hard to round out the concept with, say, a live fish tank?

This is a comfortable and attractive place, at least, all done up in soft pastel greens. A striking cluster of Chinese lanterns greets you as you walk in. The tables are appointed with white linens in the evening (although it's paper place mats at lunch) and a huge, see-through glass divider actually makes it seem as if there are two separate dining rooms.

Furthermore, the staff is extremely nice. The waiters wear formal jackets and perform their duties cheerfully, eager to guide you through this vast menu. Bring a compass anyway. Paper-wrapped chicken is one possible starting point, and the soups, with clean, simple flavors, are probably the best things you'll eat all night.

I'd choose paper-wrapped chicken because many other appetizers here, such as rumaki, teriyaki beef and fried shrimp, are more American than Chinese, and because the thick-skinned fried dumplings are not worth the wait. Paper-wrapped chicken is quite simple: minced chicken wrapped in little foil triangles, then steamed. There are hints of ginger, garlic and soy in the finish, and they aren't bad at all.

The soups are even more satisfying. There's a terrific, though pricey, abalone sliced chicken and black mushroom soup. One inexpensive alternative is the vegetable soup, an intense broth filled with bamboo shoots, snow peas, carrots, cabbage and a generous portion of those expensive black mushrooms. You won't get the penetrating taste of abalone in this one, but you will get lots of other flavors. The small bowl (at only $2.95) is a bargain, enough for three.

Now perhaps you'd like to try a mu shu course. Call mu shu-- minced meat, chopped egg and shredded vegetables wrapped up in thin pancakes smeared with plum sauce--the poor man's Peking duck, especially here. The waiters fold the pancakes up exactly like burritos, and they're fun to eat. Don't be afraid to pick the burritos up with your fingers, either.

But beyond these dishes, it's tough to get excited about most of what you will be served. Hot braised string beans and sauteed spinach acquit themselves in average fashion, while eggplant with brown sauce is an unappetizingly oily mess. Both the eggplant and green bean dish are strewn with tiny bits of ground pork, for added flavor. The difference is, the still-crisp green beans are not nearly so overcooked.

And some things here are just about inedible. Steamed sole, topped with fresh ginger and scallion, sounds great, but it turns out to be flavorless and lacking any discernible texture. Twice-cooked pork is a classic Hunan dish of spicy roast pork stewed with cabbage, bean paste and carrot, but this version is a sad imitation of the real thing, with tired-tasting Cantonese barbecued pork substituting for roast pork. The tea-smoked duck is rubbery and greasy, although the flavor of camphor and tea leaves does perfume the ruddy, ham-like hunks of duck meat nicely.

Lamb in two styles is a great idea-- kung pao lamb, rich with peanut and fagara pepper, combined with the dusky, salty flavors of Mongolian lamb, that dish that elevates the humble leek to great heights. I just wish the kitchen had been more careful with this idea. Happy Palace gives you an overly salty platterful, with a residue of oil.

You'll probably like the shrimp fried rice if you ask the waiters, as we did, to prepare it with light soy, the way they do for themselves.

And don't miss the show desserts, candy apple or banana, made by plunging fruit into hot syrup and then into a bowl of ice, magically crystallizing the sugar. There aren't many authentic Chinese dishes we would recognize as dessert, but this is one of them. Ironic, in a restaurant that tries so hard to conceal its true identity.

Where and When Location: Happy Palace, 21230 Devonshire St., Chatsworth. Suggested dishes: paper-wrapped chicken, $4.95; abalone soup, $10.95; mu shu pork, $7.95; hot braised string bean, $6.95; candy banana, $4.25. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Price: Dinner for two, $15 to $39. Beer and wine only. Parking lot. Discover, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Call: (818) 998-8080.

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