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Kang's West Side Story

September 22, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

In 1991, when Yujean Kang opened his eponymous restaurant on Raymond Avenue in Pasadena, the restaurant felt something like a Chinese bistro, with its persimmon-colored walls and simple, light-filled interior. An immediate favorite with wine connoisseurs and foodies, it featured an extensive wine list and showcased delicate Western-inflected dishes, such as Chinese polenta or lobster with fava beans and caviar. Kang created menus to complement specific wines and hosted special dinners for visiting winemakers. Still, he dreamed of a second, grander space. It took him a long time, but with the help of a feng shui master, he has found the right space: the former Alberto's on Melrose Avenue, half a block from Mortons and Eclipse.

The new Yujean Kang's is a severely minimalist box with two large windows in front. Potted palms and shimmery paintings hung above red brocade banquettes brighten the pale earth-toned dining room. A bas-relief dragon greets diners as they enter, its pointed ears making it look more like a gremlin. The waiting area is outfitted with antique carved-rosewood opium beds and silk-covered pillows. T'sung Dynasty lattice screens set off a small room with a single large round table. And the back wall grid frames intricately carved pieces of jade.

Opening a second location is an ambitious move, one Kang doesn't seem entirely ready for. Though he's composed a menu of new and familiar dishes for his Westside outpost, three months later the kitchen is still struggling to execute it. Service can be confused, with long lapses between appetizers and main courses. And prices are high, especially for the portions.

But while inventive Western chefs have fused the flavors of Asia with French or Italian or American cuisine, Kang has done the opposite--introducing Western elements to his basically Chinese cooking. Like Nobu Matsuhisa of Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills and Nobu in New York, Kang knows that a little Western-style caviar adds cachet to a dish. (Though it doesn't take any particular cooking skill). Some of his experiments are delicious; others work better on paper than they do on the plate.

Crescent-shaped dumplings, as tiny as something you'd serve at a child's tea party, are a delightful, if difficult, exercise in using chopsticks. Crispy poussin, baby chicken cooked whole and cut into bite-sized pieces, is moist and subtly scented with Chinese spices. Quickly sauteed julienned sturgeon comes in a lovely, if a bit too sweet, kumquat and passion fruit sauce. Chinese polenta, diamonds of custardy cornmeal fried to a golden crisp and served with gorgeous fresh Louisiana prawns and honey mushrooms, is wonderful. I also like the prawns in a rosy sauce with fava beans and black and enoki mushrooms, though I don't think the dollops of caviar add much to the dish. When the kitchen is working well, juicy pork tenderloin with yellow chives is quite good. The julienned tripe and lamb dish fired with slivers of red chiles is worth trying, too.

But sometimes the food can seem somewhat bland, hampered even more by clumsy cooking. Some of Kang's Westernized dishes seem nonsensical. What's the point of substituting ordinary green beans for perfectly delicious Chinese long beans, tossing them with a few coins of salty, smoky Chinese ham and charging $15 for a plate? Or regular broccoli for the far superior Chinese broccoli? Not to mention prosciutto di Parma for Smithfield ham, the closest thing to the famous hams of Yunnan province. And instead of steaming a whole rock cod or black bass, when I order the steamed fish of the day, out comes a chunk of the Chilean sea bass ubiquitous in upscale L.A. restaurants.

And a few dishes taste as if the chef had picked the components from a list of ingredients while blindfolded. The flavors have nothing to do with each other. One night, Chilean sea bass in the form of potstickers, morsels

of fish encrusted with sesame seeds, a tofu sheet and a scrap of Parma ham, make an enticing appetizer. The next time I order them, they're awful, dried-out little morsels. Even tea-smoked duck is lackluster and rubbery. And while the traditional Beijing-style duck looks impressive, its flesh is dry and the wrapper is as thick as a flour tortilla.

Portions are a problem, too. Order the deep-fried treasures, and you get minuscule bites of shrimp wrapped in nori, shrimp in a spring roll and a couple of other equally dull bites. A waiter one day hastens to inform us, probably to ward off disappointment, that appetizers are small--and Chinese appetizers even smaller. When I order barbecued ribs another night, our waiter says, "I wouldn't really advise that. You only get four ribs for $16."

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