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RESTAURANT REVIEW : King Dragon Dining More Sweet Than Sour

W or opp is back.

There was a time when Chinese menus barked at you in eye-boggling, barbarously transcribed Cantonese: wor opp, fun kor, shuey mai. A time when the local Chinese restaurant was as close to a foreign country as most Americans ever got and there were pompous Chinese restaurant mavens who loved to gas about how Chinese food was really the best in the world, thunderously better than that snobby, finicky, overpriced French stuff.

Then came Mandarin and Sichuan and Hunan, and cheap European flights and the wine craze and the discovery that French food was really something. All sorts of exotic cuisines showed up in our restaurants. Finally, in the supreme exoticism, we started having a revival of old-fashioned American cuisine (at up-to-date prices).

Inevitably we now have a revival of old-time Cantonese food in King Dragon. Only the food’s better than I remember it ever being, and of course this time around it’s about as expensive as that French stuff.

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King Dragon is not particularly spectacular to look at (though there is a striking neon dragon covering the ceiling), just another Imperial Golden Jade Dragon Garden Palace sort of place, darker than most and with soft rock radio for a sound track. The menu, above all, looks dismaying commonplace.

But try this sweet and sour pork. The sauce is light and sweet, dark pink in color rather than orange. There’s no evidence of tomato sauce or catsup in it, and along with the pineapple and carrot chunks we find slightly tart pickled watermelon rind, which is responsible for a distinct share of the sourness as well as the clean, refreshing aroma.

A lot of dishes are richer than I remember. Rumaki, that name from the distant past, is bacon wrapped around chicken breast--just chicken breast, rather than chicken liver and water chestnut. The egg foo young dishes are very sparing in the bean sprout department, but drenched with rich beef gravy. Even shrimp fried rice has a little surprise. It’s the usual soy-darkened rice, but the shrimp are not the utility grade things that look like pink sowbugs, they’re fresh shrimp, perfectly cooked.

Salted baked aromatic prawns, with a faint aroma of garlic and spices, is light and elegant (watch out for those rings of fresh hot pepper, though). Lemon chicken flambe, despite the name, seems to be flamed in orange liqueur. The sauce is sharp and sweet, and the chicken comes in exceptionally crisp breading. The sauce on the lobster Cantonese is amazingly rich with egg and ground pork.

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However, the lobster has a faintly fishy aroma, and there are at least a few failures here. On the whole you’re safer sticking to the Cantonese stuff. In particular, the mu shu dishes have a disappointing sugary-sweet filling that lacks flavor and variety. However, the moo goo gai pan is clean and fresh tasting, just chicken breast, water chestnut, baby corn, mushrooms and snow peas, in a meaty chicken stock.

I have to say some of the dumplings, like fun kor, leave me cold with their sticky steamed dough. Doubtless they are too authentic. And the desserts are the usual perfunctory business, mostly oriental ice creams like green tea or red bean. The almond gelatin, served with canned fruit, isn’t bad, though.

Welcome back, wor opp.

King Dragon, 170 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills. (213) 652-4187. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday and for Sunday dinner. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $20 to $75.


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