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EATS: in and around the Valley | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Uninspired but Refined

Peking Pavillion boasts stylish decor, but menu lacks creativity.

October 22, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Valley Chinese restaurants rarely take chances on the new or exotic. The Peking Pavillion in Studio City is a perfect example. If the menu choices or the preparation were to show just a touch more daring, this could be quite a satisfying place to dine.

So far, though, the new restaurant is doing a brisk business anyway, in no small part because of its nicely manicured appearance. The spotless dining room is resplendent with dark wood paneling, handsome Chinese paintings and a bright tartan carpet. Service is accommodating and attentive.

But the few nightly specials are cautious choices--fresh asparagus or Maine lobster are scarcely beyond anyone's Oriental food event horizon. The best strategy is to coax a good meal out of this kitchen gently, by homing in on less adulterated, more straightforward preparations. For instance, the chicken on lettuce, that suburban twist on a traditional Chinese new year's dish, is fresh and appealing.

A waiter will smear individual lettuce leaves with the delicious house plum sauce, then spoon in a mixture of finely chopped chicken, black mushrooms and minced bamboo shoots. All it lacks is the traditional toasted pine nuts.

The fried dumplings--thick-skinned pockets of crisply fried dough with dense pork fillings--make delicious starters. The big-splurge appetizer is Peking duck at $19.95. It's lean duck with crisp skin, and it has the plus of being served with delicately steamed buns, a good plum sauce and fresh scallions. But beneath that beautiful lacquered skin, the meat is unseasoned, so it ends up tasting woefully bland.

If live Maine lobster is listed on the specials board, try it sauteed with black bean sauce, a lively, classic Cantonese treatment. Mine was a little oily, but the lobster had good flavor, and the salty fermented black soybeans were a wonderful complement to the briny essences of good, fresh lobster.

The only other seafood dish I've tried here was something called crispy shrimp. This was a fine dish of prawns, lightly floured (instead of breaded) before frying, and served plain in a big pile.

The pork dishes are reliable, if occasionally erring on the side of blandness. The best is the Hunan-style favorite called twice-cooked pork. The meat is steamed, fried and then tossed with a confetti of red, yellow and green peppers--and fagara, a mouth-numbing spice indigenous to China).

The rather plain, deep-fried pork chop is a generous portion. Shredded pork with Peking sauce is tasty, if rather on the sweet side, and comes with four pancakes, making it the poor man's Peking duck.

I like the vegetable dishes best when they're at their simplest. An unimpeachable dish of sauteed spinach seemed to have been made with nothing more than oil, garlic and spinach, and the greens had that magical snap of freshness.

Dry-sauteed string beans, in contrast, came to the table overcooked, no doubt because the substantial amount of minced pork they're sauteed with takes longer to brown than the beans.

There's a spate of rice and noodle dishes on Peking Pavillion's menu, but I recommend sticking with plain steamed rice. The Yang Chow fried rice, tossed with Chinese barbecued pork, somewhat flaccid pieces of beef brisket and a few prawns, had a stale taste, while both the fried noodle dishes I sampled swam in excess oil.

At the end of the meal, you will get a complimentary plate of orange slices and the usual fortune cookies. Menu choices are limited to ice cream, canned litchi nuts and greasy, sugar-dusted fried bananas. Peking Pavillion could easily do better with dessert, and on most other aspects of its solid, if uninspiring, menu.

BE THERE

Peking Pavillion, 11920 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. Open 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 4-10 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Parking lot. All major cards. (818) 508-7779. Suggested dishes: fried dumplings, $4.95; chicken on lettuce, $5.95; twice-cooked pork, $7.50; Maine lobster with black bean sauce, market price; sauteed spinach, $6.50.

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