Tampering with the classics is a dangerous business. Small changes are considered radical ones. Wrong moves can be ruinous.
And yet, there is a strange double standard with regard to Chinese cuisine, which by any standard qualifies as the world's classic cuisine. Let an enlightened Westerner like Barbara Tropp of San Francisco's celebrated China Moon Cafe get fancy with it and she is hailed as a genius. Let an enfant terrible like Wolfgang Puck put his own stamp on it and serious eaters from everywhere come running. But let a Chinese step out of the wings of obscurity with a new concept and watch what happens. The overwhelming reaction is bewilderment. It's like Bach played on a synthesizer; no one knows quite what to say about it.
And that's just what's happening with Joss, the bold, new restaurant belonging to Cecile Tan, longtime Hong Kong resident and one-time enfant terrible . (Tan was a film director while still in her 20s.) Joss has a menu that reads like the table of contents in a Chinese cookbook. It shoots for greatness with every dish. Joss also has a post-modern dining room full of dramatic lines and sharp pastel geometry. Is that a design for a Chinese restaurant? You bet it is.
Everything about this place is unusual. The wine list looks like an oversized Christmas card. It's red with green Chinese calligraphy, colors symbolizing luck and prosperity. Inside, there are amazing selections, like '78 Latour, '85 Pine Ridge Chardonnay and dessert wines ranging from Ports to '79 Chateau d'Yquem. Not exactly Wan Fu, these wines.
Then there is the service. We've come to accept erratic service as part of the Chinese restaurant experience. There was even a restaurant in San Francisco, Sam Woo, where customers lined up just to be abused by the waiter, the late, legendary Edsel Ford Fong. Not here. Joss has an appealing cast of serving people, starting at the top with manager Tony Lai, who built Alhambra's Wonder Seafoods into Los Angeles' best Chinese restaurant, and going down to a group of attractive, cheerful, young Chinese-Americans who take the orders and pour the wines. That alone is radical enough.
But the menu is the real surprise. Tan has eaten in every great restaurant in Hong Kong, restaurants that naturally comprise the breadth of Chinese cuisine, and she has tried to do the impossible: put all her favorite dishes on one menu. What makes this problematic is the different cooking styles involved. For a menu like this, you'd need 10 chefs. Surprisingly, she nearly brings it off.
At least two dishes spring to mind as being the best versions I have ever tasted. One is Mongolian lamb, sizzling in Shoa Shing rice wine with leeks and pepper; the other is "shrimp with nuts of olive mellow" (featuring the seed contained in the olive pit), a sauteed dish that contrasts the crunchy sweetness of the nuts against the pungent flavors of roasted garlic and crispy ginger.
Paper-wrapped spare ribs are tender and juicy, perfumed with fruity Chun Chiang , a Chinese plum wine, and barely dusted with flour for additional texture. Cantonese taro-braised duck is served with Napa cabbage, a welcome variant from the usual and more neutral Chinese cabbage, and the essence of the taro is brought out as a result. Yunnan kung pao chicken, from Tan's home province on the Burmese border, uses chong chee , the Chinese pine nuts, instead of the heavier peanuts. The peanuts are not missed.
Other dishes stir mixed emotions. In the classic rendition of Peking duck, the duck is presented, and then you are served fluffy buns, which you stuff with wonderfully crisped skin, flower-cut scallions and a delicate plum sauce. Soon after comes the bird, carved on a platter, and later come the bones in a soup. No wonder this dish has endured for thousands of years.
At Joss, it's done differently. The duck is presented, and it is one of the most perfectly roasted birds you will ever lay your eyes upon. Head chef David Chan, a globe-trotter who has worked in Hong Kong, Brazil and Switzerland, will see to that. But then the waiters whisk the bird away, only to return with a platter topped by the skin.
Waiters surround the platter, and begin wrapping pieces of duck and skin on a thin pancake, which is then served directly to you. The rest of the duck is never seen again.
This luxury bears a heavy price tag of $36, and it's well worth it. But for that price, I want the bones, the soup and the marrow as well. Their Peking duck is pure delight, but the presentation needs to be changed. You feel as if you are eating the world's most expensive burrito.
Another adaptation that doesn't quite work is the West Lake sweet and sour fish, which substitutes catfish for the traditional West Lake fish, a large fish resembling steelhead. The sauce is fine, but it just doesn't blend with the fish. Perhaps they should try another freshwater fish.
Dim sum are fabulous at Joss, certainly the most sophisticated and delicate in the city. Dim sum chef Yu Biao was plucked right out of a popular Hong Kong restaurant, and he has a very light touch. It also helps that they are made to order, for dim sum don't keep.
You'd think Joss would be the hottest restaurant in Los Angeles, and yet there are almost always empty tables. I think I know why. People who have been clamoring for a first-class Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles are not really ready to support one. Personally, I'd eat at Joss every night if I had the chance. For me, it combines all the things I like about restaurants: Chinese cuisine, European wines and the casual elegance of California.
Joss, 9255 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 276-1886. Open daily 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Beer and wine. Valet parking in the evening. All major cards. Dinner for two, food only, $45-$75.