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Yankee Doodle Dumpling

May 05, 1996|S. Irene Virbila

"Inside or out?" asks our silver-haired host in jeans and sneakers as he ushers us into the small tile-roofed ochre house. We stroll past the maple bar, where two lithe, leggy blonds sip exotic-looking martinis under the gaze of a Warhol lithograph of Chairman Mao. After a peek at the three cozy dining rooms, one with a fireplace and all with chairs in buttoned-down red slipcovers, we're torn. It's such a gorgeous evening, though, that it seems a shame to stay inside when the courtyard garden beckons. So, with the heat lamps turned up, a breeze rippling through the awning overhead and a fountain gently murmuring, we settle into sleek ivory armchairs, unmistakably Phillipe Starck, and ponder what to order. Ravenous, we polish off the bowl of just-fried crispy noodles and gingery sweet duck sauce that come out first thing.

When it's time to order, Manhattan Wonton Company's menu--with its egg rolls, wonton soup, fried rice and lo mein--reads like something out of a time capsule. It's supposed to. The restaurant, open since Valentine's Day in the elegant old quarters of the Le Restaurant on Melrose Place, is a tribute to the Chinese food that owner Paul Heller grew up with in Brooklyn during the '50s. His uncle, novelist Joseph Heller, took him along on forays with his buddies Mel Brooks and Mario Puzo in search of Manhattan's best Chinese food. But when Paul Heller moved to L.A. in 1983 (he's the former head of television development at Paramount), he despaired of ever finding here the Chinese food he knew and loved in New York.

Well, he's got it now. And, luckily, so does every other homesick New Yorker. My Brooklyn-born friends swear this is genuine Brooklyn-Cantonese cuisine, only cooked with a bit more finesse. At my table, Mr. Brooklyn is ecstatic, busily crumbling inch-wide crispy wonton noodles into eggdrop soup, which is clear and rich, without the telltale slick of grease. He's already ordered barbecue spareribs, egg rolls, cold sesame noodles, pickled cabbage, steamed pork dumplings and fried rice. Oh, and shrimp in lobster sauce: "On the day of my bar mitzvah," he says, "my father let me order anything I wanted. And that's what I got: $3.95."

The spareribs, four to an order, probably come from Chinatown. Dabbed with a sweet, mercurochrome-red sauce, they aren't the best I've had, but we nibble them down to the bone anyway. Egg rolls taste the way they used to. Fat noodles coated in cool, rich sesame sauce are refreshing, especially between bites of the cabbage in rice vinegar. "Oh, yes, this is definitely Brooklyn," says the Bronx gourmet at the table, sampling the roast pork fried rice. "I remember the fried rice there as being particularly laden. This was the entry-level dish, probably about 85 cents back then." The local version is loaded, too, (roast pork, bean sprouts, peas, carrots, scallions), fluffy and not at all greasy. It's the shrimp in lobster sauce, however, that's really wonderful, made with plump, squeaky-fresh shrimp in a silken sauce freckled with ground pork. (In case you don't know, lobster doesn't play a part in "lobster sauce.")

When Mr. Heller strolls up to the table, Mr. Brooklyn can't resist asking what's in the duck sauce. "I could tell you," Heller answers with a smile, "but then I'd have to kill you." Then he launches into the story of the duck sauce: how, even though the Brooklyn restaurant that made his favorite duck sauce closed, he placed a classified ad for information about it; how a couple called to say the restaurant across the street had virtually the same sauce; how he had a friend go there, taste it, Fed Ex him a jar; and then how, Hong Kong kitchen consultant in tow, he flew back himself and ferreted out the ingredients from the waiters.

Other dishes I'd recommend are the minced chicken with scallions and pine nuts and fine crunchy curls of fried rice noodles to add texture. It's a huge portion to eat folded in iceberg lettuce with a dab of hoisin sauce. Hacked chicken, a cold appetizer in sesame dressing with a backbite of heat, is satisfying, too, tossed with slivers of cucumber for cool crunch. And "Crackerjack Shrimp," a house specialty, is a big plate of large shrimp coated in a sweet orangish sauce that's been wok-fried to a crisp and crackling jacket, almost like a candied apple. It's the sweet without the sour, and actually kind of good. The chow fun is less oily than most renditions, the wide rice noodles mixed with lots of barely cooked Asian vegetables. And one of the best dishes is Maine lobster in the shell with a delicately nuanced black bean sauce.

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