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No Wok, but Plenty of Roll

Asian Grill Shuns Traditional Pans, Oil to Make Healthful Dishes and Sushi Too


Asian Grill, with its high ceilings and a pleasing melange of soft crayon colors, is in a typical shopping center in Lake Forest, so you might assume it's just another cookie-cutter franchise. In fact, it's full of personal touches.

The Hong Kong-born owner, Rita Palmer, is warmly chatty and ardently interested in how you like your food, so it's no surprise she's on a first-name basis with many--maybe most--of her customers. Her presence is everywhere. She created the menu, designed the interior and even did the paintings that hang on the walls.

The menu roams across a variety of Asian cuisines, including Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Malaysian and Vietnamese. Dishes are prepared with a light touch, and the kitchen goes easy on the oil. In fact, as I learned when a dining companion struck up a conversation with Palmer, there's not a single wok in the kitchen. Her restaurant uses nonstick skillets and soybean oil instead of peanut oil. "That's how I cook at home," she said.

The resulting dishes are pleasant and artery-friendly, if somewhat Americanized.

On my first visit, I took along a friend visiting from Austria. This is no culinary adventurer here--I'd say a half teaspoon of Tabasco sauce would be enough to put him in the emergency room--so I was wary when he ordered the curry chicken noodles, but he was quite happy with them. They were nicely sauteed chow mein noodles with moist, flavorful chunks of grilled chicken and pleasingly al dente vegetables. Best of all, the curry was mild and faintly sweet, with a seductive whisper of chiles that saved it from blandness.

My kung pao chicken, on the other hand, was a little too mild. It was a fairly conventional stir-fry of chicken, peanuts and bell peppers in a sweet-and-sour sauce, but it could have used the sort of high note hot peppers provide.

A better dish--in fact, a highlight of the menu--was the Vietnamese beef bowl. It's slices of tender beef, charred just enough to play against the sweetness of the marinade, served on a bed of transparent noodles. Flecks of garlic and green onion add a nice sharpness, although the accompanying soy vinaigrette dipping sauce was a bit too sharp.

With my Austrian buddy along, sushi was pretty much out of the question, but on a subsequent visit I tried it, and all the fish was very fresh and of good quality. At $12.95 for 17 items, the sushi platter is also a bargain. I was particularly struck by the tuna roll, distinguished by its substantial core of glistening ahi, far more generous than the little tuna nugget you usually get in sushi places.

Of several variations of the California roll, the most distinctive is the "crispy roll." It's a bit unwieldy at 3 inches in diameter, but it's packed with flavor. I liked the textural contrast between the mushy filling (a thick layer of minced crab and avocado in a creamy sauce) and the crunchy core, a crisp nugget of shrimp. What makes it special is that it is lightly grilled before the roll is sliced.

I don't know how famous the Asian Grill's "famous egg roll" really is, but it's a satisfying snack. The rolls get an enjoyable bite from the thin, crunchy skin; they're filled with mushrooms, bamboo shoots, carrot shreds and bits of egg and chicken. Also worth trying in the snack department is the lettuce wrap, one of those Asian lettuce tacos. It's a mixture of warm, hoisin-sweetened chicken salad, water chestnuts and tofu served with iceberg lettuce.

Rendang--a labor-intensive Malaysian beef stew redolent of ginger, garlic, chiles, coconut and a host of spices--started out on this menu as an occasional special, but apparently popular demand is gradually elevating it to permanent status. And for good reason. The beef is tender and the sauce luxurious and multidimensional. It turned out to be my favorite item on the menu.

There's also a good grilled salmon in teriyaki sauce (chicken and beef are also served teriyaki-style). Teriyaki sauces can be unpleasantly thick and sweet, but this one was not, and it had a good taste of fresh ginger.

Since Asian Grill is a carry-out hot spot in the evening hours, I also came back once without any guests and ordered a couple of items to go to see how they'd travel. I gave them the further test of leaving them in the fridge for a couple of hours. They measured up pretty well.

If you're dieting, the Asian chicken salad is a good bet, though it's a bit too spartan for my tastes. It's chopped lettuce, carrots and a smattering of green onions tossed with chunks of grilled chicken and topped with crisp strips of fried wonton. I also took home an order of chicken chow mein, a pleasingly light rendition of a dish all too often saturated with grease. The noodles were firm and had a pleasing bite, the chicken was beautifully grilled, and there was an abundance of firm pieces of broccoli and carrots--an altogether nutritionally balanced dish.

Which can pretty much be said about the entire menu. Asian Grill is healthful, affordable and friendly, a pleasant stopover for lunch and a convenient pit stop for dinner.

Selections run $3.75 to $7.75, except sushi platters, which run $7.95 to $12.75.

* Asian Grill, 24531 Trabuco Road, Lake Forest. (949) 588-0875. Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 5-9 p.m. Monday-Friday. Saturdays: dinner only, 5-9 p.m.

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