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Indochine Submerged in Unevenness

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The new Indochine Bistro on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica aspires to be, among other things, the first major dim sum palace on the Westside--and its nearly limitless outdoor seating may make it the first patio dim sum restaurant anywhere. In addition to dim sum, there is also a lengthy, ambitious menu filled with familiar Chinese dishes and with a number of French-inflected Asian or “Indochine” specialties.

Upon entering, we are led past the bar toward the dining room. While our hostess scouts for a table, I’m mesmerized by two amazing saltwater aquariums full of bizarre rock-clinging urchins and aquatic versions of dahlias, chrysanthemums and flesh-colored popcorn. The hostess has to urge me forward to our small window seat. In the far reaches of the dining room is a wall of aquariums filled with cod and catfish destined for the dinner plate.

A certain underwater dreaminess contracted at the aquariums is never fully dispelled in any of my visits to Indochine. It is a thickly staffed restaurant with no discernible procedure; the service is a free-for-all, each new customer generates a feeding frenzy among the staff. At least four people ask for our drink orders. When the drinks come, long after our appetizers, they’re partly wrong. Another waiter brings us a bowl of hot pickled cucumber, radish and carrot, which an assiduous busboy clears away long before we’re done with it. From nowhere, a woman comes up, recites the specials, gives an in-depth description of one dish, then says the kitchen is out of it.

She tries, then, to take our order, but the waiter we’ve already ordered from shows up and runs her off.

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We order three dishes for dinner, and two come. We’re frankly amazed to get anything. We reorder the missing dish, a salad, and eat it for dessert. Champing to leave, I put a credit card on the table. Five servers ask if we would like our check. “Yes,” we say. “Yes, yes, yes and yes.” When the check finally comes, and we pay it, the woman who described the specials reappears and entreats us to stay for mango pudding. We wander out, dazed, into the cool, billowing fog and wonder, “Was that a meal or a strange dream?”

Indochine’s food ranges from knockout good to most peculiar. Steamed vegetarian dumplings, wrapped in sticky rice noodle and filled with bland wood ear mushroom and carrot, aren’t very good. Scallion pancakes taste like green-onion-flecked pie dough gratuitously topped with dry crab meat and boiled shrimp. But “salt and pepper calamari,” spiraled chunks of tender squid in a light, golden batter spattered with a sweet minced chile, are wonderful.

Indochine specialties range from wild mushrooms en croute to a Malaysian braised beef, long cooked in coconut milk with blue ginger, that is fall-apart tender, a hearty beef stew with a tropical edge. Large, meaty spare ribs come with two dipping sauces, a tasty, sweet fish sauce and a form of liquid fire. Udang bali, thin coconut-enriched red Southeast Asian curry with shrimp and carrots, is sweet, with sly chile heat.

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Scallop salad comes with a generous pile of plump bay scallops rolled in hot spices on a heap of good baby greens with a cooling, if sweet, gingery dressing.

The more familiar Chinese dishes make a good showing here. Kung pao shrimp, with peanuts and sweet red pepper and bits of chile, tastes fresh and good. Indochine chow mein, with a thin, partially crisped noodle, comes with a little bit of everything: barbecued pork, scallops, shrimp, chicken, chunks of snapper-like fish. We pass on the traditional Chinese vegetables--eggplant, string beans, bok choy--and order a plate of very garlicky, very wonderful braised romaine spears.

Despite the confused service and the varying quality of the food, Indochine is doing a brisk business, filling up on weekend nights with a diverse crowd of dating couples, families, large tables of Chinese speakers, all of which drives home the fact J.R. Seafood in West L.A. and V.I.P. Seafood in Brentwood have already established: Clearly, the Westside is starving for authentic Chinese cooking.

* Indochine Bistro, 1299 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 656-5775. Open seven days for dim sum, lunch and dinner. Beer and wine served. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $26-$80.

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