It generally takes about five minutes after I've been introduced to someone before the questions start coming. "What is your favorite restaurant?" is followed, inevitably, by the next most urgent question: "Where's a great Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood?" As if I'm holding out.
Believe me, I'm not. I'd be the first to trumpet the existence of a stellar Chinese restaurant in Covina or Culver City. But for the best Chinese food, you have to go to the San Gabriel Valley.
Case in point: A few weeks ago I persuaded some friends of friends to come east as far as Monterey Park to the improbably named New Concept Restaurant. There's not really a sign in English, I told them. Just look for a banner beneath three reindeer outlined in Christmas lights. You'll see the name New Concept at the bottom.
We're just settling in when I notice one of my guests, an Italian, staring at something behind me. I turn around to see our waiter bearing a truly impressive specimen -- a live Alaskan king crab, the daddy longlegs of the crab world. The creature is a beautiful gray rose with bumps that makes it look like a piece of coral reef. Good disguise, no? He (or she) is a big one all right, weighing in at 8 pounds and some change. (The price is equally intimidating -- more than $240 at market price, but it makes a feast for a minimum of six, working out to $40 per person.)
For The Record
Restaurant review-- A review of the New Concept Restaurant inWednesday's Food section indicated that the San Gabriel Valley cityof Covina was located elsewhere in Southern California.
In Italy, my seafood-fixated friend Pietro catches octopus in the Mediterranean and cooks them up for lunch. And though he's lived and worked in this country for more than 20 years, he still can't get over the fact that even right here on the coast, fish means an anonymous block of white protein. It's hardly ever grilled whole. People will run screaming from the table if he serves them a shrimp with the head on, the better to suck out its delicious juices.
That's why this moment is so particularly sweet. Here's a guy who's been living in L.A. all this time and had no idea you could find this kind of lustful seafood experience, a 45-minute drive from home.
After an amuse of sorts, a plate of chicken gizzards quickly seared in the wok and cut into bite-sized pieces, the crab -- well, at least part of him -- was back. The legs arrived cut in sections, each carefully cracked, on a black lacquer tray filled with ice. (The plastic wrap covering the ice seemed a bit clumsy, but I see its purpose: It keeps the melting ice from invading the crab shell.)
I have to admit, I've never been a big fan of Alaskan king crab legs. Most of the time they're bland and stringy -- and frozen. These do not in any way resemble what I'd had before: Now I understand why it's considered such a delicacy. The taste of the crab meat is delicate and refined, and the texture is less meaty, say, than Dungeness crab; it's flushed a deep rose color next to the shell. At first, the waiter brings us sweetened mayonnaise for dipping, but when we ask for something else, he trots out a potent minced garlic sauce, which is stupendous with the crab. Even better, though, is a dab of crimson chile sauce.
For once, because we are just five when we should have been at least six (if not eight), everybody has as much crab legs as he or she could possibly want. But this is just the first course in this crab fest.
Next comes the body hacked into big pieces and pan-fried in butter with scallions. Can there be anything more decadent? The meat, which comes out of the shell easily, is rich and messy and tastes of pure sweet crab. Washed down with a dry Austrian Riesling from F.X. Pichler (we brought it with us) that cuts through the butter like a knife, it is one of the best food-and-wine combinations I've had in my life.
Before we get to the third crab course, long life noodles cooked in the crab butter from the inside of the carapace, we try a couple of other dishes at this 4-month-old restaurant. The Macao roasted pork, served at room temperature, it is absolutely austere -- no sauce, no garnish -- just marvelous, flavorful pork. And I love the baby bok choy in a slightly smoky fish broth, which brings out all the sweetness of the greens.
When the long life noodles come, the tagliarini-wide rice noodles have absorbed the rich funk of the crab butter, so they're not so much sauced as melded with the crab butter into one. Who's to say this dish won't bring long life? I'm counting on it. After that, we have roast squab. The meat is dark and gamey, the skin crackling crisp.
I'd been introduced to New Concept by Chinese friends, avid foodies, who track every restaurant opening in the San Gabriel Valley. When they find something they like, I badger them until they give up the name and at least some perfunctory directions. If they like a restaurant, they'll eat there several times a week until the chef leaves or a new favorite shows up on the scene. The night we went to New Concept together, Elsa had already been there for dim sum that day -- and the day before.
New Concept is the first U.S. outpost of a restaurant group that has more than 20 restaurants in China. The executive chef, Chen Chen Liang, who is from Canton province, opened the Monterey Park restaurant. The walls are covered with bamboo patterned wallpaper and hung with color photos of dishes in ornate gold frames. It's smaller and cozier than the big seafood houses, though it does have two private rooms for parties. The fish tanks that show off live seafood are tucked discreetly in a corner and a refrigerator labeled "frozen food" stands in the dining room next to the kitchen door.
One night we're served a clear, sweet soup laced with pieces of papaya and little clouds of something white and diaphanous. What is it? None of us could figure it out.
Our waiter got tangled up trying to explain -- something about the frog's second skin. Finally, frustrated, he gives up and comes back with a package labeled "snow jelly," which is translated as "frog fat." "Very good for the ladies," our waiter assured us. It's supposed to be good for the skin.
Most Chinese desserts don't do a thing for me. New Concept, however, has one that's outstanding. Profiterole-sized sesame balls with their tops sliced off and filled with a dreamy tapioca pudding or soup that's discreetly sweet. You can get it with or without birds' nest inside. I'd skip the bird's nest, which is basically bird saliva, expensive and more texture than flavor anyway.
Service at New Concept is accommodating and professional. For non-Chinese, it's one of the less intimidating restaurants in Monterey Park because at least one or more of the managers speak English. The menu is a photo album of all the dishes, though the English translations can be awkward. What to make of something described as "stewed frog oil with papaya" or "stewed swimming bladder with pepper and pickles?"
The wine policy is uncommonly friendly too. Like most Chinese restaurant's wine lists, New Concept's is pretty perfunctory. Fortunately, the restaurant has an enlightened corkage policy: $10 per table. It doesn't, of course, have fancy crystal, just the normal bulletproof glasses.
And after four visits, I've yet to exhaust the menu. Other dishes I'd recommend include domino-sized pieces of crackling pig skin with a dab of foie gras beneath, something from New Concepts repertoire of au courant Chinese dishes. The odd-sounding shrimp with oatmeal turns out to be wonderful. Basically, it's shrimp in the shell with toasted oatmeal strewn over the top the way a western cook might throw in some toasted hazelnuts. The taste of the shrimp against the bland, toasted oatmeal is an inspired combination.
Steamed rice noodle is excellent too, either with short lengths of baby spareribs or beef. I loved the whole Dungeness crab pan-fried in chile sauce with pounded pork. But my favorite may have been succulent live rock cod fried and then cooked in a hot pot in a reddish sauced doused with vinegar. You end up sucking every bit of fin and bone.
Dim sum is extraordinarily good too. Instead of carts circling the room, they give you a list with boxes to check like a sushi menu. The soup dumplings, siu mai, and spare ribs with black bean sauce are especially fabulous, and so are the delicate steamed buns with barbecued pork filling.
New Concept's menu lists lots of enticing dishes I haven't had a chance to try yet, such as tea-flavored, pan-fried frog, stewed goose feet in abalone sauce, and three-cup farm chicken Taiwan style, to name a few. I haven't had a bad dish yet. And though the aesthetic and ambience may leave something to be desired, New Concept stands out for its consistently excellent cooking. You can spend a little or you can spend quite a bit, but even if you go for something as extravagant as that live Alaskan king crab (which must be ordered in advance; it's available more or less year-round, taking every third month off), it's a bargain compared to restaurants at a similar level anywhere else in Los Angeles.
Bring on the Chinese.
New Concept Rating: *** Location: 700 S. Atlantic Blvd. (at El Portal Place), Monterey Park; (626) 282-6800.
Ambience: Medium-sized Chinese restaurant with a more refined atmosphere than most. The decor features bamboo-patterned wallpaper and color photos of dishes in ornate gold frames. The place has an avid following of Chinese food aficionados.
Service: Accommodating and helpful. Good English spoken.
Price: Dim sum, $1.98 to $5.98 per item; appetizers, $4.80 to $22.80; most other dishes, $8.80 to $18.80 and considerably more for pigeon or live seafood at market price, which can be as high as $40 per pound for live Alaskan crab; desserts, $8.80 to $22.80.
Best dishes: Dim sum, soup dumplings, Macau roasted pork, prawn with oatmeal, salt pork with greens, rock cod hot pot "Taiwanese style," steamed rice noodle with beef or spare ribs, baby bok choy in fish sauce, pan-fried Dungeness crab in chile sauce, live Alaskan king crab three ways, pumpkin tapioca, sesame balls filled with tapioca, sweet papaya and snow frog fat soup.
Wine list: Small selection of safe California labels. Corkage, $10 per table.
Best table: A corner table in the back.
Special features: Two private rooms.
Details: Open Monday to Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for dim sum; daily for dinner from 5 to 11 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking in front.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.