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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Fung Lum Is a Feast for the Eyes but Not for the Taste Buds

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Los Angeles is constantly being praised for its striking restaurant architecture, from Frank Gehry’s creations to the Burger That Ate L.A. on Melrose Avenue. What I can’t figure is why nobody ever mentions Fung Lum.

This enormous Universal City restaurant, with its commanding view of the San Fernando Valley, is quintessential L.A. kitsch. Universal Studios ought to make the place a mandatory stop on its tour.

The owners, a family called Pang, also run branches in Hong Kong, Taipei and Campbell, Calif. (a suburb of San Jose). One of them told me that Fung Lum would cost more than $8 million to build in today’s market.

The restaurant sits atop a sloping hill, a vast Chinese palace constructed to scale. It’s awesome to approach by moonlight--you almost want to take off your shoes when you enter. Then you pass through the mammoth, museum-like double doors, sculpted in bronze relief, and into the foyer, with its multicolored temple ceiling; the foyer must be 50 feet deep.

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That, it turns out, is just an architectural hors d’oeuvre. As you push toward your table (the dining room always seems to be packed), your eyes are drawn to reproductions of Chinese artifacts you’ve ogled in Oriental art stores throughout the world. There are dozens of pieces; celadon vases, wood carvings, floral arrangements. They should consider printing up a guide.

Now that you’ve had the tour, I assume you’ve come to eat. That raises an interesting question. How, in a dining room that serves more than 400, can 12 chefs produce anything beyond assembly line cooking?

The answer comes almost immediately. Service is snappy, if highly impersonal, and the kitchen is astonishingly fast. Food comes to the table so quickly you get the feeling it must have been precooked. Unfortunately, most of it tastes as if it has been.

The menu has 130 dishes, though, and there are some good things to eat here. I’ve had a few good vegetable dishes, when I was lucky enough to order the ones that don’t use canned mushrooms. Chinese kale with oyster sauce is nearly perfect, and “tender greens” (read: mustard greens) with black mushrooms and fresh bamboo shoots is intensely satisfying.

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On the other hand, it’s astonishing just how bad some of these dishes can be. Steamed rice, the staple of any Chinese meal, is consistently mushy here. Pan-fried dumplings are normally one of the joys of Chinese cooking, but Fung Lum’s have soggy skin and a sour filling.

The carnage doesn’t stop there. “Fung Lum special spareribs” are candy-coated lumps of grease, in a sticky red sauce you wouldn’t let your 10-year-old eat. “Fung Lum special lemon chicken” is cloying and heavily battered--it tastes vaguely like lemon Kool-Aid without the water.

The trick, perhaps, is to keep things simple and shun any dishes that are not purely Cantonese. That means no Sichuan dishes, no combination dishes and nothing--absolutely nothing--with an adjective in the name. (Particularly not the word “special.”)

That doesn’t leave much, but there actually are enough decent choices. Minced squab is a nice appetizer despite the hefty price tag ($12.50). It’s flavored with black mushroom and bamboo and is eaten taco-style in lettuce leaves with passable plum sauce.

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Fresh seafood is at least edible, provided you order it steamed so the assembly line can’t monkey with it too much. Steamed catfish tastes just like catfish; the Maine lobster with ginger and scallions is good too, cut up into big pieces sticking out of the shell. Prawns in spicy Sichuan sauce, however, is simply dreadful. The prawns taste as if they have been marinated in catsup, Tabasco and Karo syrup.

In particular, avoid the awful duck dishes, particularly expensive ones such as the limp Peking duck ($35). The chicken dishes are better, and cheaper to boot.

Crispy skin chicken, a Cantonese favorite served with spiced salt, is far from an embarrassment, despite a surfeit of salt. It’s half a chicken and the meat is mostly quite tender. Baked chicken in black bean sauce is fair as well.

Surprisingly, there is a wonderful dessert called Fung Lum pudding. It’s really nothing more than a large bowl of tapioca pudding served warm with a sweet bean paste center, but the combination gives aid and comfort. After an evening here, you’ll probably need all you can get.

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Suggested dishes: minced squab, $12.50; Chinese kale with oyster sauce, $7.50; tender greens with black mushrooms and bamboo shoots, $10; steamed whole catfish, $15-$20; Maine lobster with ginger and scallions, $23.

Fung Lum, 222 Universal Terrace Parkway, Universal City, (818) 763-7888. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3-10 p.m. Sunday; brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major cards. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$50.


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