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VALLEY WEEKEND | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Shanghai Specialties in an Elegant Setting

Harvest Inn's cold appetizers and beggar's chicken are among the best dishes served in the downtown Glendale dining room.

September 26, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Harvest Inn remains the swankiest Chinese restaurant in downtown Glendale, one of the few places outside the Monterey Park/Alhambra/San Gabriel triangle where it is possible to get good Shanghainese cooking.

Credit for that belongs to a venerable chef named Chung, who was longtime chef at the Winter Garden on Wilshire Boulevard. Chung is himself a Shanghai native, and his menu is infused with the spirit of that city's cooking, though a few of these dishes have been mercilessly Westernized for local tastes.

On the ground floor of a Glendale high rise, the restaurant and its high-ceilinged dining room are relaxing and elegant. The main floor is carpeted in a pale moss color, and booths are plush and comfy. Come in a group of six or more, and you can probably have one of the private dining rooms behind the main floor, partly hidden by modular doors. Service is semiformal, highly competent and patiently informative.

Shanghainese cooking is known for cold appetizers, seafoods and light sauces. If you crave pork or hot and spicy dishes, you may be in the wrong restaurant. In a written language where the character for pork is synonymous with the one for meat, Harvest Inn's menu lists a total of three pork dishes. Shanghainese cooking is not that big on pork. Tiny vials of homemade chili paste can be used to spice up the food. (Stars next to an item on the menu indicate that it is spicy, but here spicy is mild compared to a dish in a Szechuan-style restaurant.)

Cold appetizers are wonderful. The oddly named "vegetable goose" is rolled bean curd skin stuffed with bamboo and minced mushrooms, so named because it resembles the cooked neck of a goose. Ask for the succulent dark meat when ordering wine marinated chicken, strongly flavored chopped chicken redolent of garlic and pungent with rice wine and Chinese liquor. Be aware that the chicken meat will have the faint tinge of blood close to the bone, which may not be to everyone's taste.

Hot appetizers are less interesting, mostly dishes like the requisite paper-wrapped chicken, barbecued spareribs, spring rolls and shrimp toast. There is, however, one item that defines both Shanghai and this restaurant. That would be shao loong bao. Translated as "steamed bun" on this menu, it is a plump, round dumpling filled with a moist chopped pork and scallion. Eight to an order come piping hot to the table in a bamboo steamer, chewy, moist buns that splatter your shirt with juice when you bite in. Douse them with the vinegar and fresh ginger dipping sauce served on the side. No place in Los Angeles makes a better version.

That's not to say that the restaurant is perfect. At lunch, when the rooms fill up with business people and everyone is ordering specials, food can be bland and uninspiring. Braised string beans are fresh, but the sauce is barely detectable. Sliced chicken with Chinese mushrooms has even less flavor, shards of plain white meat chicken sauteed with a few reconstituted mushrooms.

But at dinner, when the pace is more relaxed, the cooking is more careful. Ask the kitchen to prepare the famous Chinese dish called beggar's chicken, a whole chicken traditionally baked in mud. (The beggars, according to legend, lacked the funds for a proper pot, hence the mud.) It's best to give the kitchen about two days' notice, and to bring at least five people to help eat it.

Instead of using mud, the chefs bake the chicken in a hard bread crust (which is not meant to be eaten). The top is sliced off at the table, revealing what looks like an enormous ball of lotus leaves. Beneath the wrapping of leaves is a plump, juicy chicken stuffed with minced chicken meat, mushrooms and vegetables. It's a wondrous dish.

The other worthy dishes on the menu are available any time. House-braised shrimp are coated in a tangy red sauce that subtly delivers hints of Worcestershire, garlic and rice vinegar with each bite. Tangerine beef is a pile of delicate, crisp-fried beef, served with the fruit peel and slivers of red chile. The house moo shu pork, one of the three pork dishes here, is a pancake rolled at the table with julienned carrot, cucumber, bean sprouts, shredded egg yolk and gently sauced pork. Pan-fried noodles are crisped on the bottom and toothy in the middle, served with a choice of meats.

There is even a dessert worth trying, something I can't say about many Chinese restaurants. It is red bean pastry, a round flaky bun filled with a dense, sweet paste made from pureed red beans and sugar. It's both filling and delicious, a treat for beggars and rich men alike.

DETAILS

* WHAT: Harvest Inn.

* WHERE: 550 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale.

* WHEN: Lunch and dinner every day, lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 4-10 p.m.

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, (food only), $35-50. Recommended dishes; vegetable goose, $7.50, steamed bun, $5.95; beggar's chicken, $26 (two days advance notice); moo shu pork, $8.50, house braised shrimp, $12.95.

* FYI: Full bar. Validated parking in Maryland Avenue garage. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

* CALL: (818) 956-8268.

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