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Kang's Chinese Puzzle

Chef's Five Feet has the kudos and the crowds, but are meals worth waiting for?


LAGUNA BEACH — Nothing much changes in this terminally hip beach town. The sunsets still dazzle, and Michael Kang still wows everybody with his unique take on contemporary Chinese cuisine.

Frankly, I'm impressed. Kang's restaurant, Five Feet, makes out in the Zagat Survey year after year. The 1998 guide gives it 26 out of a possible 30 rating points in the all-important food category. That puts it third among Orange County restaurants, behind only Pascal and Aubergine. No other Asian restaurant even comes close.

If Zagat had a hip-look category, Five Feet would also score high. The long, narrow dining room is crammed with plants, paintings and post-modern sculpture. The walls are concrete, the ceiling a jumble of wooden beams and exposed air ducts. Outrageously decorated metal snakes serve as the light fixtures. The faux marble tables are set with snazzy china service plates and sleek lacquered chopsticks.

As you might guess, the place is invariably noisy and crowded. Most nights, it's almost impossible to get a table before 9:30 without a reservation. On a recent visit, our reservation was delayed more than half an hour.

But the management offered us glasses of wine and complimentary appetizers by way of apology. The service never misses a beat here. The staff is enthusiastic and efficient, and the waiters are, by my lights, the best in the city.

All that is what I like about Five Feet. Now for the hard part. No restaurant makes me think of the expression "no accounting for tastes" like this one. The food it serves is pleasant enough, when it doesn't stray far from the basics, but I find most of it overconfident, overconceived and overpriced.

This is what I mean. Where else would you pay $16.50 for kung pao chicken, a dish priced a third as much at most any Chinese restaurant--and an overly sweet version at that?

Or take "richman & poorman." The menu described it as "fresh Hawaiian walu baked in black trompette mushroom crust (poorman's truffle) with black trompette Chardonnay sauce, over a bed of porcini ravioli sauteed with hoshimengi mushroom, haricot vert, Maui onion and grated fresh Perigord truffle." I had to try it, and found that all the ingredients, including the fish, to be overcooked. Price: $29.

The menu, a printout, changes daily. Most of it is taken up with similarly complex dishes, described as "Chef Michael Kang's Whimsical Creations." Whimsy is nice when the dishes work, but most of the creations, I'm sorry to say, don't come close.

My waiter characterized one called "odd couple" as "pure heaven." Er, not quite. The menu called it "crispy style Cantonese duck and fresh Manchester Farm ravioli sauteed with plum ginger sauce with wild mushroom and white asparagus," but the reality was pieces of fatty duck with crisp skin (softened by the pungent sauce) arranged around a Frisbee-sized flying saucer of red and black pasta with an insipid filling.

"Fish in the forest" was a stuffed loup de mer with a starchy seafood dressing that reminded me of Mrs. Paul's.

"Comfort zone" is one dish that got high marks at my table. It was roasted rack of Australian lamb with Asian herb soy lamb jus, accompanied by good garlic mashed potatoes and a grilled artichoke with Merlot aioli. Another acceptable choice was "hot hot hot," jumbo black tiger prawns wokked in a sweet and spicy tomato onion sauce with penne pasta, asparagus, black mushrooms and water chestnuts.

At the top of the menu is an unchanging core of Chinese appetizers, most of which are good. (One of the best things served here--the deliciously tender pickled cabbage marinated in red chile and sesame oil--is complimentary.) Kung pao calamari feels like a steal, comparatively speaking, at $8. It's the most tender calamari I've ever tasted, stir-fried with crisp peanuts and mouth-numbing fagara peppers.

Mama Kang's pot stickers are fine, with their dense, moist pork stuffing and light soy-ginger dipping sauce. Another good choice is golden cup with romaine leaves and plum vinaigrette ($13). The irresistible filling is chicken, pine nuts, fried rice noodles and minced vegetables. The idea is to smear the lettuce leaves with plum vinaigrette and then spoon the mixture into them.

One of Five Feet's major drawing cards is its extensive, and expensive, wine list, well-stocked with French and California wines. Though I can't imagine who would order a $600 bottle of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Echezeaux, except perhaps Mick Jagger, who recently dined here.

There are also interesting desserts, including a terrific chocolate chip and macadamia nut creme bru^lee, a rich chocolate pear tart (served warm) and a workmanlike mixed berry cheesecake.

But I'm thinking that food is really beside the point at Five Feet. You come here for the art, the buzz and good service and the energy. Unless, of course, you are a participant in a survey.

Five Feet is very expensive. Starters are $5.95 to $13.50. Entrees are $16.50 to $33.


Five Feet, 328 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach. (714) 497-4955. 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

All major cards.

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