Let's Eat Out : Chinese Food in U.S. Garb

Times Staff Writer

In terms of new ideas, Characters on Melrose Avenue is fun. Its menu is like few other Chinese restaurant menus because the owner, Greg Schoon, an all-American boy of Chinese descent who was a fashion model before doing something about his passion for restaurants, has a talent for merchandising Chinese food in an American package. You get old favorites like bum bum chicken and jellyfish under the appetizing name, "Emperor's Legacy."

Menu offerings are upbeat, and the decor unlikely: diffused pink lighting, modern industrial furnishings and design. Not a pro job, but OK.

Now for the lament: Management, where art thou?

"Not to be a nuisance," we repeated to the hostess for the third time during the last stretch of our 40-minute wait. "May we please have some Perrier while we wait?" (No wine and beer permit yet.)

"I can't right now, I'm busy," said the hostess.

The first time around, the owner invited himself at our table to explain his new restaurant, then toward the end of our meal asked us to sit at the desolate bar with our dessert so waiting customers could be seated.

"I know nothing about the restaurant business," confessed Schoon during our chat.

But he's learning fast.

Thoughtful Presentation

Business, in the few months of opening, has been better than he--or I, for that matter--would have dreamed possible.

Something must be right. The food?

The food is well-presented, though one would wish for larger portions. (No need to worry about a doggy box at Characters.) And the service is willing and eager, if slightly bumbling, due to lack of experience.

Now. Let's talk menu.

There is "Phoenix Fantasy," a salad of duck, chicken and jellyfish, which would please any jellyfish lover, though I often wonder who the jellyfish lovers are. There is more of it than anything else. The dish's return to the kitchen, because of the dominance of the jellyfish, which I am not crazy about (tastes good, though), was taken well, and a substitution arrived without fuss or muss.

"Tofu Noodles" are a novelty not to be missed if only to see what else tofu, the miracle protein food, can do. It can and does turn into spaghetti. Cold tofu noodles are rather dry and al dente, but well seasoned and surprisingly tasty.

Arrival on Sizzling Platter

I enjoyed the hot and sour soup. And the so-called "Volcano Beef" is less tumultuous in taste than in spectacular presentation on a sizzling platter. I liked that, too.

Then we tried kung pao scallops for comparison and found them incomparable to the best we've had, but still better than most we've had. The shrimp in lobster sauce was also tasty and fresh. Imperial beef, Hunan-style, which tells you at once that you're in for hot and spicy, is, indeed, hot and spicy, and also flavorful and fresh. Orange-flavored chicken is a version of the Hunan dish often served with beef, and it, too, is not bad at all.

The dishes on the menu are numbered, we suppose to differentiate the appetizers from the soups and other dishes more for the chef's benefit than the customer's, as there are not all that many items on the menu. With the few specials of the day, the menu items--nicely proportioned among appetizers, soups, chicken, beef, seafood, vegetables and dessert--number about 40, give or take. Short and sweet. The place is in my neighborhood and we may be back for some of the vegetable dishes (eggplant Szechwan looks good), and certainly for the chocolate hazelnut torte. The fried apples and tofu custard were unexpectedly fine.

Characters, 7422 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, 852-1984. Open daily 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Major credit cards accepted. Reservations necessary. Street parking. Average check $12 per person.

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