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East Looking West

April 06, 1997|S. Irene Virbila

All across America, restaurants are melding Asian cuisines with elements of French, Italian and California cooking. Over the past year or so, Southern California alone has seen the openings of Le Colonial in West Hollywood, Monsoon Cafe in Santa Monica, Indochine in Los Angeles and ObaChine in Beverly Hills. And now, only blocks from ObaChine, comes Crustacean, an offshoot of the Euro-Asian restaurant run by the An family in San Francisco.

Executive chef/owner Helene An grew up the youngest of 17 children in a wealthy household in the Tuyen Quang province of North Vietnam that had three cooks, one each to specialize in Vietnamese, French and Chinese food. So An is fluent in all three styles of cooking. At Crustacean, she blends them freely but with decidedly mixed results.

The restaurant succeeds as an evocation of French colonial Vietnam with an overlay of the obligatory Beverly Hills glitz. Outside, water mists a grove of bamboo and cascades down a saltwater aquarium. Inside, brilliant orange and white koi swim along a "stream" in the travertine floor.

The curved copper bar features a long list of fanciful martinis (another hot trend), including Crustacean's own martinis made with rice wine. On some nights, almost everyone is nibbling the little dishes that An calls Asian tapas, while a pianist plays old standards. A wood bridge leads to the two-story dining room, the second level a series of verandas overlooking a bamboo garden in the middle of the room. Designed to look like interconnected houses, wood shutters open onto delicately painted landscapes. Teak and dried palm ceiling fans twirl

overhead, and tables are set with antique vases filled with white orchids.

The overall effect is wonderfully romantic. As proof, I catch more than one couple nuzzling between courses. If you're not feeling amorous, however, you'll have to think of other ways to pass the time because service here is sorely lacking. We wait. And wait. For our menus. For our wine. One night, almost 45 minutes pass before we receive a morsel to eat.

It's a pity that there aren't more dishes worth the wait. Rice-paper rolls filled with prawns, the Vietnamese herb rau ram, green mango and vermicelli noodles are just fine. Yellow corn soup with crab "confit" is as bland as creamed corn but comforting. A salad of calamari, shredded green papaya and aromatic Asian herbs in a lemongrass vinaigrette is refreshing and spicy. But a potentially lovely Vietnamese salad of julienned cabbage, cucumber, carrot and lotus root is ruined by tired shrimp and a cloyingly sweet dressing.

Vietnamese beef carpaccio consists of excellent, if a bit watery, beef garnished with red onion, capers and purple basil. If only the onion had been cut thinner and the whole thing hadn't been drowned in lemon essence. Norwegian salmon carpaccio, on the other hand, is truly awful, covered with slices of sharp red onion, briny capers and doused in a dark balsamic vinegar-shoyu "mist" that stains the fish an unappetizing color. But it's no worse, really, than a Western chef splashing everything in sight with shoyu, as if that and a bit of ginger are enough to create an exciting East-West fusion. An is just approaching it from the other direction.

Even some of the more straightforward dishes need help. Seafood dump-lings are heavy and dull in taste. An Asian bouillabaisse, tomato broth loaded with shellfish, is sweetened with pineapple. And after I taste An's renowned garlic noodles--egg noodles infused with garlic and something sweet--I begin to suspect that the secret ingredient is sugar.

Main courses are an improvement. Waiters tend to push the three dishes listed from the Secret Kitchen, a smaller kitchen screened off from the main one to prevent anyone outside the family from stealing the recipes for the two whole-crab dishes and giant prawns with garlic noodles. Both times I order the whole roasted crab, it's woefully overcooked and incredibly oily, yet everyone else is eating it with gusto. The crab cooked with sake and Chardonnay is much better. And if you like giant prawns, the broiled ones, split and served over garlic noodles, are rich and filling.

Other dishes are better, namely the ho-fun ravioli, a supple rice noodle dough wrapped around nicely cooked prawns, braised fennel and cara-melized shallots in a light soy and sesame emulsion, and the calamari sauteed with fresh ginger and green onion in a pineapple coulis that's both sweet and hot.

At Crustacean, each dish is paired with a wine. For $4 extra, you can get a glass of the appropriate wine, which turns out to be a very small glass, too narrow to fully appreciate the wine's bouquet and, considering most of the wines offered, priced at a walloping markup. We try the suggested pairings one night with first courses and abandon them because the pour is mingy and none of the matches particularly wow us.

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