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RESTAURANT REVIEW : A Treasure of Chinese Cuisine : Mandarin Wok in Thousand Oaks takes diners on a sweeping culinary tour of China's provinces. The lavish interior is friendly to families.

March 24, 1994|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The outside facade of the Mandarin Wok, at the far end of the Janss Mall in Thousand Oaks, is austere, almost fortress-like. Bright red, over-sized letters blaze the name of the restaurant, as if announcing the way to a nether world. But up close, is a beautiful doorway, evocative of ancient China, and through it one steps into a truly lovely environment.

A generous reception area, filled with splendid, carved furniture, exquisite Oriental mirrors and ceramic vases, is flanked on one side by the dining room and, on the other, by a full bar, with rosy lighting.

The eating area resembles an elegant ship's dining room--a sea of tables covered with snowy linens in a spacious room. The walls are of silvery brocade interspersed with deep red panels, decorated with beautiful Oriental prints and a stunning bas-relief of wild bronze horses.

The place feels rich. But despite the elegant formality and stately service, it accommodates families effortlessly. The acoustics are so good, the crying of a newborn baby on its very first outing sounded soft and appealing rather than strident, as if the noise had simply been absorbed into the walls.

The name Mandarin refers to either a ranking government official or the standard language of China, a country of many different dialects. At the Mandarin Wok, the menu reflects a sweeping tour of Chinese provinces: Peking duck from the North, Hunan lamb from the central region, Szechwan dishes from the West, entrees cooked in soy sauce (called "red cooking") from the East and the marvelous cooked vegetables typical of Cantonese cooking in the South.

We had to try the "Beverly Hills cup" ($2.50 per person), so named, we were told, from a dish served in the Beverly Hills restaurant owned by the same owners. This consisted of a curiously appetizing mound of warm ingredients--chicken, scallions, water chestnuts--so finely chopped they were this side of soft, served on a lettuce leaf with plum sauce on the side.

Sizzling rice soup was mild and savory. Although the rice was too crunchy, the shrimp was succulent and the snow peas, fresh and crisp. Hot and sour soup was far blander than it should have been and tasted somewhat like tomato soup with Chinese ingredients.

Another dish that caught our eye was "Napa cabbage with black bushrooms" ($6.55)--such a wonderful word. Of course, the bushrooms turned out to be mushrooms, but the dish was superb. The cabbage was quite wonderful. This and another dish of young spring peas still in the pod, served in a subtly sweet, subtly spicy sauce, along with carrots and chicken, were well worth the trip to the restaurant.

Hunan lamb, a special one night, was OK, but disappointingly mild, its faint spiciness merely hinting at possible glory. Far more interesting was lobster in Szechwan sauce ($15.95), with big chunks of lobster, mushrooms and water chestnuts in a sauce that sang a medley of flavors--sweet, spicy, tangy and garlic.

A house specialty, orange peel chicken ($9.55), consisted of slightly sweet fried chicken chunks, with delightful snippets of candied orange peel and a fiery kick that nicely cut the sweetness.

Beef with asparagus was mostly beef, of a good quality and well-cooked, though I would have like more of the crisp asparagus slivers. An appealing dish of sauteed green beans with ginger ($6.55) had been stir-fried to softness. It relied more on the beans than the ginger, which was faint to nonexistent.

The range of tastes and flavors here were not as extravagant as Chinese food can get. But the ingredients were fine and fresh and the atmosphere charming. I noticed the place was quite popular--and quick--for takeout. One night I brought home a big dinner for the kids. It held up well in the uncompromising light and Spartan decor of our kitchen.

In the end, all that was left were the fortunes from the fortune cookies, lying on the table like autumn leaves. The fortunes had a decidedly philosophical bent. Mine read: "If all our wishes were gratified, many of our dreams would be destroyed." An odd note to follow such a gratifying meal.

Details

* WHAT: Mandarin Wok

* WHEN: Open for lunch and dinner, Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday 12 to 9 p.m.

* WHERE: 205 N. Moorpark Road, Thousand Oaks

* COST: Dinner for two, food only $16-$40.

* FYI: Full bar, Visa, MasterCard, American Express. (805) 496-6229

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