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RESTAURANTS : A TWIST ON CHINESE : Yujean Kang’s Assertive Cuisine May Change Pasadena’s Culinary Reputation

We didn’t think we were ready for the Westside yet,” says the small woman standing next to our table. She gestures a bit apologetically at the red walls of her new restaurant. “My husband and I thought it would be better to open here first.”

“Here” is Pasadena, and on this particular Tuesday night, it is not looking as if theirs was a very smart decision. As we walk into the restaurant at 7:30, the only other occupied table is about to be vacated, and for the remainder of the evening we will have this simple but elegant room to ourselves.

For the record:

12:00 AM, May. 12, 1991 For the record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 12, 1991 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 6 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
In the April 7 issue, the food stylist for the Restaurants photograph was Diane Elander; table linens courtesy Bristol Farms Cook ‘n’ Things, South Pasadena.

Pasadena has not been good to its good restaurants. La Couronne--one of Southern California’s best French restaurants--opened there to critical raves and empty tables; today a real estate office occupies its site. And after one bite of almost any dish on the menu at Yujean Kang’s, it is clear that this is a very good restaurant.

Kang calls his food “gourmet Chinese,” which makes it sound more effete than it actually is. What Kang does is reinterpret the classics of Chinese cuisine, giving each dish his own personal twist. He does this boldly--and although he often borrows ingredients and techniques from Western cooking, the result is quite the opposite of the fey East-West mix to which we’ve become accustomed. There is no butter here, no toning down, no softening of edges; Kang’s flavors are aggressive and exciting.

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Consider the tea-smoked duck we are about to eat in the lonely splendor of this dining room. Listed among the entrees, the dish actually makes a perfect first course. It combines the crisp skin of Peking duck--the skin crackles when you bite into it--with the wonderful pink smokiness of meat that has been set over leaves of burning jasmine tea. The duck arrives regally arranged on an elegant platter; the breast is then sliced, scattered with scallions and wrapped up in flour crepes that have been spread with plum sauce.

Sauteed minced chicken, more finger food, is another takeoff on a classic dish. Here chicken stands in for the traditional squab, leaves of radicchio replace the usual lettuce wrappers, the crunch comes not from fried rice noodles but from freshwater chestnuts, and the flavors are intensified with bits of Chinese ham and shallots.

Chinese dumplings are also unusual in Kang’s hands. His are tiny, no more than a mouthful apiece. Each minuscule morsel is stuffed with a mixture of pork and garlic chives and served in a chile-soy sauce that packs a punch. These are so addictive that, in spite of the fact that we have ordered a lot of food, we ask for another order.

“But I’m about to bring out the lobster,” the waitress says in the tone of voice normally reserved for royalty. If a voice can carry a fanfare, hers does.

And if ever there was a royal lobster, this is it. The meat has been taken out of the shell and stir-fried with fava beans, its own roe, lots of garlic, mushrooms and chile oil. Lobster has the richness to stand up to this treatment--the flavors dance delicately around one another so that each bite reveals a new surprise. It is an absolutely spectacular dish--and it will prove to be equally delicious, cold, the following day.

The food is served with elegant little bowls of rice and side orders of Chinese eggplant and Chinese polenta. The first is chunks of eggplant--crisp on the outside, creamy within--sauteed with garlic and chiles and liberally sprinkled with cilantro. The second is another of the chef’s brilliantly aggressive blendings of East and West. Using cornmeal and eggs, he has created something that is much like the turnip cakes found in most dim sum houses. Cut into diamonds, the little bits are cleanly fried so that when you bite through the crisp coat, you discover a silken custard within. These are served with a pile of pungent minced Hunan ham and a dice of fresh leeks.

Would we like dessert? Yes, we would. And out the waitress comes with tiny pots of tea--"It’s the third brew,” she whispers--and one of the nicest cheesecakes you can imagine. The filling is punctuated with slices of Mandarin orange and topped with candied orange peel; the contrast of the textures is a perfect counterpoint to the play of creamy cake and citric fruit.

We float out the door in a daze of garlic and good wine. And driving home we begin to worry. Can Yujean Kang’s survive in Pasadena?

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Over the next few weeks I discovered a couple of things. The first is that people from almost anywhere else will find almost any excuse not to drive to Pasadena for dinner--until they’ve been to Yujean Kang’s. “But you know,” said one friend, calling the next day to say she had dreamed of tea-smoked duck, “last night we made it back to Santa Monica in 22 minutes. I think we’ll be going there a lot. " And second, although I would happily eat almost any dish that Kang makes, I’ve actually found a few dishes on the menu that I don’t like.

My least favorite is chicken with glazed cashew nuts. The dish muddles mushrooms, snow peas and nuts with vanilla beans into a sweet--and in my opinion, just plain awful--mess. Asparagus a la Chinois is overwhelmed by the flavor of Chinese black mushrooms. And I found the fried rice disappointingly ordinary.

But there are lots of wonderful dishes here--scallops and soft slices of chicken in a hot chile sauce mediated by tiny steamed bok choy; Santa Barbara prawns in a green sauce made of spinach, watercress and herbs; filet of lamb with three peppercorns.

On my last visit to Yujean Kang’s, I was heartened to find that the room was nearly full. “We were here last night,” confided the woman at the next table, “but I simply had to come back. I couldn’t get these little dumplings out of my mind.”

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Still, I worry that Pasadena will not be kind to Yujean Kang’s. And not without reason. I was speaking with one of my wealthier Pasadena friends the other day, and I asked if he’d been to the restaurant yet. “Oh no,” he said, “I’ve heard it’s good, but it’s so expensive--it costs almost as much as one of those Westside restaurants.”

Yujean Kang’s, 67 N . Raymond St., Pasadena; (818) 585-0855. Open for lunch and dinner daily except Tuesday. Beer and wine only. Parking (not validated) in lot across the street. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$70.


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