RESTAURANTS / Max Jacobson : Glass-Walled Kitchen Lets Chinese Chefs Show Off Their Chops at Stix

Novel, but hardly nouvelle. That's the word on Stix, a new Chinese restaurant in Laguna Niguel. After all, how many other conventional Chinese restaurants have exposed kitchens?

It's a concept that strikes me as a bit on the odd side. Watching white-toqued chefs grilling beautifully marbled slabs of game over an open fire is one thing. But the image of three Chinese chefs stir-frying meats and vegetables at multiple woks is another. The mysteries of the East may never recover their mystique.

I stood at the glass enclosure that separates the kitchen from the dining room (without it, the oil from the woks would permeate the dining room), and marveled at the speed with which these Chinese chefs work--Western chefs seem to work in slow motion by comparison.

The restaurant itself is a bright, airy, mirror-lined place, with what must be one of the world's largest black-vinyl banquettes (a monster, almost seven feet high, that stretches from one side of the restaurant to the other.) Most of the dining tables, made of a blond wood, are strategically placed around the banquette. An open bar with a giant coral aquarium and a hanging glass rack has been built into the center of the room.

The cooking here offers few surprises. No MSG is used (but the menu does note that a few traces of the stuff are found in some food products imported from China). The menu also tells you that the oils used here are low cholesterol and high quality, like peanut and sesame oil.

But the first thing I tried here, barbecued spareribs, was a major disappointment. The ribs contained far too much oil, with a sticky red marinade that reminded me of the retro-Chinese ribs I thought we had outgrown. Then I got a whiff of the perfect pan-fried dumplings--crispy, golden-brown and subtly perfumed with leek, garlic and rice wine. The ribs were but a bad memory.

One of the owners is from Shanghai, a city with a tradition of dumpling greatness. Pan-fried dumplings are a dish he obviously considers inviolate.

I say that because many of the other dishes here are quite Americanized. That is not to say they are bad, but that they do not resemble their counterparts in Chinatown or Monterey Park. A case in point: Sichuan peppercorn beef. Order the dish in Chinatown, and you get fiery slices of soft brisket, seared with fagara pepper, salted black bean and chunked green pepper. Order it in Laguna Niguel, and you get julienned strip steak with a colorful bouquet of red bell pepper, carrot, celery and bamboo shoots. And despite the check on the menu (which indicates hotness), the dish doesn't have enough fire to toast a marshmallow.

Salads are not really Chinese, but Stix chicken salad is huge and an excellent value (though you need a machete to cut through all the rice noodles, won ton crisps and shredded lettuce that covers the chicken). Then there is something called Jade salad--a mix of spinach, shrimp, and water chestnut--with a dressing so sweet it will make your teeth hurt.

Still, most of the specialty dishes are quite good. One they call Peking chicken is terrific: pieces of pan-fried chicken breast are dipped in a light onion-flavored batter and served in a white-pepper sauce. Tread lightly with this one; it is addictively rich.

Twice-cooked pork--steamed, sauteed pork with plenty of vegetables in a hot garlic sauce--has always been one of my favorites. Here, it lacks the zest and hotness it should have, but chunks of wonderfully lean, juicy pork stand the dish in good stead. Shrimp over sizzling rice? Now there is a dish no Chinese would recognize. I gobbled mine up--sticky sweet tomato sauce, crunchy rice crispies, and all--because the shrimp tasted so fresh. Egg foo yong? Well, there aren't even Chinese characters for that one, but Stix does a fine job with its vegetable version. Mine was soft and fluffy, with crunchy vegetables and a soy sauce that did not overwhelm the dish.

About the most authentic main dishes here are the kung paos : shrimp, beef, or chicken dishes with blackened chilies and a load of fried peanuts. Kung pao chicken here is plenty hot, and the peanuts have little bubbles on them from the hot oil.

And finally there is clay-roasted chicken, which has to be ordered one day in advance. I didn't exactly eat this one, but I saw it being cracked open at a nearby table and couldn't resist sneaking over for a better look. A whole, four- or five-pound chicken is stuffed with minced pork, Chinese mushrooms, and crunchy vegetables like bamboo shoot and water chestnut, wrapped in paper, smeared with clay and baked slowly. That's one dish that must be fun to watch them prepare in that open kitchen.

Stix is moderately priced. Appetizers are $3.95 to $9.55. Soups are $4.95 to $7.45. Main dishes range from $5.95 to $9.45. Special dishes are $9.95 to $24.95. There is a small list of boutique California wines at reasonable prices.

STIX

28251 Crown Valley Parkway, at the Center at Ranch Miguel, Laguna Niguel

(714) 831-STIX

Open 7 days, 11:30-9:30 weekdays, 11:30-10:30 weekends

Visa and Mastercard accepted

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