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KITCHEN MATRIARCHS : The Unsinkable Madame Wu

November 03, 1994|ROSE DOSTI

A Rolls Royce Silver Cloud rolls silently to the curb at Drago Restaurant. Madame Wu, looking regal in an upswept hairdo and Emanuelle Kahn glasses, opens the door and steps out, ignoring the proffered hand of the valet. This is one woman who needs no help from anyone.

For a woman who owns a city block of prime Santa Monica property and is a legend among restaurateurs in a town where restaurants die faster than the latest diet fad, Sylvia Wu amazes even herself. "I don't know where I got my ambition," she says. "As a Chinese woman I wasn't supposed to know anything about business. My husband didn't think I could run a restaurant by myself. He still doesn't, but I knew I could and did."

Wu, like her husband King Yan Wu, was born into a wealthy, political family in the early part of the century. When the Japanese invaded China, Wu's family fled to Hong Kong, where she befriended the first lady of China, Mme. Sun Yat-Sen, whose style and presence has been an inspiration to Wu throughout her life. King Yan Wu's father was ambassador to the United States in the 1920s.

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"During my 12 years as a housewife in New York, I didn't know how to cook," Wu says. "I am thankful that my husband's mother sent us a cook. That's how I was able to show my restaurant cook how to prepare certain dishes."

The restaurant started out with so-called Chinese dishes, some she had never heard of in China. "I never heard of \o7 egg foo yung \f7 and pressed duck, but that's what was being served in Chinese restaurants in those days," she says. "Now we don't serve any of those dishes."

Wu's ability to adapt quickly to change was probably what saved her restaurant from extinction. When the Pritikin Diet made a big splash, Wu came up with a "Long-Life Diet" (a name suggested by former Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Lois Dwan) imitating Pritikin's low-fat, low-salt, low-cholesterol restrictions. The Peking duck served at Madame Wu's Garden has no fat on the crisp skin. "In China, people like the fatty skin, but not here. We fan the duck dry and let the fat completely drain off."

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She acted on her customers' needs and dietary requirements with dispatch. "Lawrence Welk wanted whole steamed duck and vegetables, so that's what we served him," she says. Cary Grant came into the restaurant one day raving about a chicken salad he had at a restaurant on La Cienega and asked why Wu didn't try something like it herself. Wu, remembering a Chinese banquet dish made with chicken, won tons and puffy noodles, came up with a Chinese chicken salad that has been copied by restaurants from here to New York City.

Wu has operated her restaurant since 1959--in two successive locations. She started out where Drago is now, but moved a few years later to the grand, 12,000-square-foot exemplar of stylized Asian postmodern architecture, designed by architect Guy Moore, on 22nd Street in Santa Monica. She thinks she may be ready to let go, but not just yet. Who can give up a celebrity hangout where Cary Grant, Jimmy Doolittle, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda were at home? The memories!

And the dishes: Terrific Peking duck that is still served to visiting dignitaries; wonderful crab puffs that melt in your mouth; shrimp toast and Wu's beef (a version of orange beef without the orange).

Besides, Wu refuses to stop working. She is a powerful presence at her restaurant, flitting from table to table, making small talk, checking the kitchen (although she throws up her hands at times), listening to requests and making suggestions with patience. Her energy, enthusiasm and positive outlook haven't waned an iota.

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She loves being with her children and grandchildren and insists on regular Tuesday family dinners at her restaurant. On Sundays, her second son, George, a judge, does the cooking.

"I love young people," she says and wishes she would see more of them at her restaurant. (Friday's "crime night," in which diners solve a mystery during dinner, is an effort to attract a young crowd that she keeps going no matter what.) But she's happy. "I'm at peace. I love my life and I think I have accomplished something. My name is known wherever I go."

Wu is also well known for her philanthropy, having endowed a scholarship foundation at Marymount High School in her late daughter's name, as a Music Center patron for years and having given numerous dinners at her restaurant for charities.

"You know something," she says. "Years ago, I sold this restaurant (now the Drago location) to a French couple for $15,000" . . . "\o7 $15,000\f7 ," she repeats, as if she herself can't fathom it. "You know how much they sold it for? $300,000."

Regrets?

"Oh, no, not really. Everything is meant to be," she says.

TOSSED SHREDDED CHICKEN SALAD

1/2 gallon oil

1/3 (6-ounce) package fine rice noodles

8 squares won ton, cut into 1/8-inch strips

2 chicken breasts or 2 drumsticks or thighs

1 teaspoon prepared mustard

1/4 teaspoon 5-spice powder, optional

1/4 teaspoon sesame oil

2 tablespoons light soy sauce

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