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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

A Slow Boat to China

February 08, 1996|JONATHAN GOLD

Any self-respecting Cantonese joint will serve roast duck and chow fun noodles, clams in black bean sauce and deep-fried tofu. If it's big enough to accept credit cards, you can expect there will be a fish tank someplace and at least the availability of steamed live tilapia or fried crab with garlic. If there is also a bit of marble in the foyer, you'll find at least a few of the swank Hong Kong-style dishes of the moment: shrimp with honey-glazed walnuts, casseroles with hot mayonnaise or something or other in X.O. sauce.

If a restaurant serves poached goose or braised duck, you can sometimes infer a Chiu Chow connection, though Chiu Chow influences in high-style Cantonese restaurants these days seem almost as ubiquitous as Italian inflections in high-style restaurants on the other side of town. A selection of spicy Sichuan dishes can indicate either a Shanghailander chef (in which case the Sichuan dishes will be delicious) or a substantial non-Chinese clientele (in which case they won't).

Harbor Palace, a newish restaurant near the eastern edge of Monterey Park, fills a niche in the city's Cantonese restaurants, the great, yawning chasm between the opulent seafood ballrooms and the barbecue joints, the wedding-banquet halls and the hack 'n' serve Hong Kong places where you may be considered overdressed if your T-shirt doesn't happen to be stained.

Harbor Palace has a pleasant enough dining room, big as a hockey rink, all marble and chandeliers, surrounded by photomural alcoves, set off with faux balconies and trompe l'oeil window treatments that give the impression you are in a view restaurant looking down from a Hong Kong mountaintop. Off the lobby, just past the dolphin fountain and on the other side of the room from the entrance to the take-out barbecue annex, water cascades into tanks holding coral-pink masses of spot prawns, legions of lobster, listless schools of rock cod, of sheepshead, of massive-headed sculpin.

I had something close to a perfect fancy seafood dinner here once, the sweetest steamed live spot prawns, snow-pea leaves fried with garlic, a big, gently steamed sheepshead dressed with hot oil, ginger and soy. An intense dried-scallop soup was enriched with shreds of roast duck. Half a chicken, steamed in a lotus leaf with ham and shiitake mushrooms, somehow picked up both the smoky sweetness of the mushroom and the slightly bitter, more vegetal smokiness of the lotus leaf--an effect you might expect in a $60 bottle of single-malt Scotch. It was the kind of personal, intimate cooking you rarely find in the giant banquet-oriented restaurants.

Still, after half a dozen trips to Harbor Palace, I can state that the house specialty seems to be the lunch special, slightly smaller portions of most of the house's best dishes priced at $4.25 ($4.95 for the swankier stuff), about half of what they cost at dinner, and with soup and rice thrown in free. Harbor Palace is popular enough at dinner, but at noontime and on weekends, traffic spills out of the restaurant's two parking lots and backs up traffic on Garvey, the lobby is thronged, and the wait for a table rivals the ones at the dim sum places down the street.

There is fairly decent Cantonese barbecue here, duck (full-flavored but perhaps more adipose than one might prefer), sweet barbecued pork, crackle-skinned slabs of suckling pig and exemplary soy sauce chicken. Pepper-salt squid may be oily, chewier than it should be, but the pepper-salt fried pork chops are crunchy and terrific, lip-tingling.

Half a fried chicken, served with a pepper-salt dip and about a million varicolored shrimp chips, has the crisp lacquered skin and perfectly moist meat you expect from good Cantonese frying and at $4.95 may be the best poultry bargain this side of Zankou. (An extra buck or so will get you one of the house specialties, unaccountably off the menu, half a tea-poached chicken, skin colored almost a maple-sugar brown, whose flavor gives a fleeting impression of syrupy sweetness with a subtle bitter edge before it gives way to the quite different sweetness of really fresh poultry: spectacular.)

Linguine-size lo mein noodles come braised with the restaurant's version of X.O. sauce, the complex, chile-hot dried-shellfish goop that is all but mandatory in ambitious Hong Kong-style restaurants this year.

If you look around the room, everybody seems to be eating the Cantonese standby pepper-salt "baked" shrimp (an unusually greasy version), clams sauteed in a sharp black-bean sauce and Peking-style pork chops, which are great, crisp heaps of hacked meat crusted with an intensely sweet, catsup-like glaze, as hard to stop eating as caramel corn.

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