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August Moon Craters to Variety of Tastes

Michael Chiang’s newest restaurant, August Moon, is hot stuff, but I’m not sure I can put my finger on why.

I mean, this place has a decor busier than the San Diego Freeway at rush hour and a menu chockablock with standard-issue suburban Chinese fare. Perhaps its secret is that this is a restaurant where most people can get exactly what they want. Perhaps it’s the August moon.

Chiang, high-profile owner of Mandarin Gourmet in Newport Beach and Chinatown Restaurant in Irvine, has taken no chances and included something for everyone in this operation. Feel like suburban Chinese and an elegant, slightly Western decor? No problem. Sit on the upper level, gazing at the trompe l’oeil sky-blue ceiling, chowing down on such dishes as oven roast barbecue spareribs, three-flavor sizzling rice soup and rustic orange beef--strips of beef dipped in gobs of sticky cornstarch and deep fried.

Fancy a more authentic experience? But of course. Sit facing the mock Chinese palace that is built into a rear wall, request a pair of the house chopsticks (handsomely lacquered in red and black), and dig into such dishes as anchovies and chicken fried rice, Peking duck soup and fresh asparagus with shiitake mushrooms.

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That doesn’t necessarily mean this is my cup of tea. I find the decor somewhat daunting, from the red and blue checked carpet to the floral print tablecloths--covered with glass--that adorn each table. One of the smaller dining rooms has steel blue booths splashed with opulent flecks of red and yellow. The main dining room is held up by several strategically placed floor-to-ceiling pillars, all colored a bright, metallic white.

Silverware, in stark contrast to those beautiful lacquer chopsticks, awaits you at the table. So does a real Chinese teapot filled with oolong tea. One just wishes that the tables--busy with fresh flowers, tiny fishbowls (each stocked with a lone, rather bored-looking tropical fish) and other paraphernalia--were more spacious to make sharing dishes less awkward.

All right, already. The extensive menu features dishes from every corner of China, the majority of which have been altered slightly--read: oversweetened and underspiced--from their original methods of preparation.

Plunge into the long list of appetizers and you will eventually strike gold. I did, with vegetarian steamed dumplings, green-skinned wonders cooked al dente, stuffed with a filling of minced bamboo, water chestnut and mushroom. One appetizer has the longest name I’ve ever seen on a Chinese menu: “two guys from N.Y.C.-Tony and George introduces (sic) Chinese B.B.Q. pork with anisette.” After the buildup, the dish turns out to be a pile of glossy barbecued pork--high-quality, low-fat slices cooked to an appealing dryness, but with barely a hint of that hotly anticipated star anise flavoring.

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The kitchen hedges its bets even more with wilted honey smoke fish and marinated cucumber. This rustic Shanghainese specialty, served cold, is dark and glazed and tasty all right, but also annoyingly grainy from excessive sugar. More chili and sesame oil would bring to life the cucumber slices that bestride this smoked fish.

Nothing could save the lamentable barbecued chicken salad, though. It’s a heap of plain iceberg lettuce doused in a dressing too sweet for a 10-year-old. The few hunks of chicken thrown on top don’t even register on the palate.

The soups are interesting, but the restaurant’s practice of serving them in individual portions (as opposed to larger bowls suited for two, or four, say) flies in the face of Chinese tradition. The best is a simple one called Mandarin Peking duck. This is one of those clear, almost ethereal Chinese broths composed of sliced ginger with some shredded duck swimming just below the surface. The flavors are focused and intense.

Thai spicy and sour shrimp is another good one. It’s a light, tomato-based soup with a noseful of aromatic spices and a generous helping of shrimp. Let’s not call it Thai, though. Nary a hint of mint, lemon grass or galanga root escapes from this bowl.

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Big-hitter dishes are located in a small section of the menu entitled “Accents of August Moon.” I nearly got shut out trying to order them. Most of these dishes carry a hefty price tag: aromatic lobster with pearl balls, $25; beggar’s range chicken, $18; Neptune’s net, $20. Don’t feel your wallet, though. All but two or three are unavailable.

One dish from this section you can get, “Peking-lacquer range chicken,” is mostly a disappointment. What I tasted were slices of fatty chicken rolled up in a crepe burrito-fashion, with a surfeit of sticky, sweet plum sauce. The camphor tea smoked duck, on the menu’s poultry section, is no bargain either. Unless, that is, you fancy a reasonably good deep fried duck with no tea flavor whatsoever.

Noodle and rice dishes are quite good. The imaginatively named Shanghai style gnocchi are silver dollar-shaped rice cakes sauteed with pork, black mushroom, fresh bamboo and water chestnut. Vegetable dishes can be delightful as well, as with asparagus and shiitake mushrooms. The asparagus are chopped into little pieces, Cantonese style, and cooked to a delicate crunch.

Dishes marked with the outline of a fagara pepper indicate hot and spicy, but you’ll have to make a special request if you want real Sichuan hotness. Firecrackers lamb fizzled when ordered without this request, although the good pieces of lean lamb were quite tasty. But firecrackers shrimp sizzled when the waiter knew we meant business, with just the right amount of hot chili oil and fresh scallion. Now that’s hot stuff I can really put my finger on.

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August Moon is high-end moderate. Appetizers are $3 to $9. Rice and noodle dishes are $6 to $12.50. Specialties are $6.50 to $25.

Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition. * AUGUST MOON

* 6417 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach.

* (213) 596-8882.

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* Lunch 11:30 a.m. through 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. through 3 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday; dinner 4:30 through 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4:30 through 11 p.m. Friday, 3 through 11 p.m. Saturday and 3 through 10 p.m. Sunday.

* All major cards accepted.


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