Basic Chinese

Manhattan Wonton Co., newly located in grander quarters on South Doheny Drive, is at its best Sunday nights. That's when waiters set up the largest round tabletops, and families--often three and four generations deep--come to eat Chinese. It's no surprise that most of them are New Yorkers. In Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan, eating Chinese is a Sunday night tradition.

Owner Paul Heller, former head of television development at Paramount, grew up in Brooklyn. He used to troll the neighborhoods with his uncle, the novelist Joseph Heller, in search of the best Chinese food New York had to offer. Those suburban and Chinatown places had a style and a menu all their own, more Chinese New York than any particular regional cuisine. Every kid knew the menu by heart: egg drop or won ton soup, fat, crunchy egg rolls, shrimp in lobster sauce, chow fun or lo mein, pork fried rice--and, of course, a fortune cookie to crack open at the end. Those favorites are the heart of Manhattan Wonton Co.'s menu.

The original Melrose Place locale, which opened in 1996, married this New York comfort food with a radical chic decor. A Warhol silk screen of Chairman Mao hung behind the tiny bar, where models sipped exotic martinis and servers sported T-shirts emblazoned with the words "steamed," "toasted" or "hot." Whoever heard of a Chinese restaurant with fireplaces, soft lighting and a dark, romantic garden out front? (The enchanting site is to become a Provencal restaurant, Bastide.) Manhattan Wonton's new digs are more traditional Chinese, with elaborately carved wood panels and ornate ceilings anchored by white silk lanterns. It's so grand, in fact, that if the rooms are not filled, you can feel a bit forlorn sitting there under the sometimes harsh spot lighting.

Heller and co-owner Susan Seeger have added a large outdoor terrace in front and turned a couple of the dining rooms into a bar and lounge, where you can order dim sum and appetizers, along with a slew of farfetched flavored martinis. It's especially handy for anyone attending a screening at the Writers Guild Theater next door. Everybody loves barbecued spareribs with a well-made martini, preferably Bombay or Boodle's gin with just a whisper of vermouth. That's pure California kitsch. Fortunately, the wine list offers a few Champagnes and a handful of white wines, plus a rose, that are better suited to the food.

I know someone who headed straight for Manhattan Wonton Co. the minute he was liberated from a weeklong stay at Cedars-Sinai hospital. To this former New Yorker, egg drop soup spelled comfort. The broth is rich and clean, tasting of chicken instead of grease. Even better is the wor won ton soup with supple won tons trailing their tails through the clear broth, with bobs of sliced mushrooms, swatches of greens and shrimp. Served from a large bowl, the $6 portion feeds four easily. It's tempting to scarf down the inch-wide fried noodles on the table as if they're chips, dipping them into Heller's favorite duck sauce, but save some to crumble in the soup.

I have to admit I've never understood some people's passion for egg rolls. They're usually at least a little greasy, rarely crisp enough, and the filling of bean sprouts and slivered vegetables is often soggy and bland. Manhattan Wonton's New York egg rolls are true to form. But I learned something watching my Brooklyn-born friends take out the filling, mix it with Chinese mustard and duck sauce and then put it back in. What's this? They couldn't explain, other than to say they've always done it. As for fried won ton, they're about what you'd expect in any Chinese American restaurant, but the pork spareribs now are better than I remember. They've lost their Mercurochrome color.

Stray from the soups and these few appetizers, though, and you may be in trouble. The shrimp in the har gow are fresh, but the wrapper is too thick for this delicate steamed dumpling. Wok-fried shrimp in the shell is a better choice. Cold sesame noodles are done in by a medicinal-tasting sauce. Crispy crab puff won tons are awful, filled with a cheesy cream in which it's hard to find a shred of crab. Shrimp toast triangles coated in bread crumbs come out limp and greasy.

When it comes to plates to share, definitely get the shrimp in lobster sauce, which, by the way, has none of the expensive crustacean. The sauce is actually ground pork. It's sort of a poor man's lobster dish with less expensive shrimp substituted for the lobster that would normally go with the sauce. The shrimp are still a touch translucent. I don't think I've had a better version. If you want lobster, though, you can get it with black bean sauce. The sweetness of the lobster is nicely offset by the salt of the black beans. Another good bet is chicken with basil and black bean sauce. Californianized with zucchini, red peppers, onions and enough other vegetables to make three chopped salads, it's made with not just any chicken. This bird has real flavor.

That said, too many of the other main courses have an excruciatingly sweet sauce, a close cousin to the old cornstarch-thickened sweet and sour sauces, but a step up because flavors are more penetrating and clean. If you like this kind of thing, try the "beef with orange flavor." Fish tends to be Chilean sea bass, salmon and even swordfish, none of which lend themselves well to Chinese-style preparations. That's where Manhattan Wonton's yuppie roots show.

The kitchen offers Peking duck, with no advance notice required. It's not going to be the best Peking duck you've ever had, but, at $30, it's inexpensive and inoffensive enough to please the crowd, especially if that crowd includes grandma and kids. You'll have to roll the pancakes yourselves, though.

Service, while pleasant enough, can be a bit scatterbrained. One night when we try to order a bottle of the Bandol rose, there's not a corkscrew to be found. Heller has to send someone out to buy a few. One or two waiters may be experienced, but the rest seem to be new to the business, writing down our appetizer selections, then forgetting to come back for the rest of our order, or forgetting to bring serving utensils.

For that taste of New York Chinese and the general affability of the staff and owner, Manhattan Wonton is the only game in town. And now, with its larger location, it can accommodate still more homesick New Yorkers, even on a Sunday night.

Manhattan Wonton Co.

151 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills

(310) 888-2804.

Cuisine, New York Chinese.

Rating: *


AMBIENCE: Grand Chinese-style dining rooms with ornate woodcarvings, posh bar and outdoor terrace. SERVICE: Inexperienced waiters, sometimes exasperatingly slow. BEST DISHES: Won ton soup, New York egg roll, shrimp in lobster sauge, lobster in black bean sauce, wok-tossed shrimp in the shell, pork-fried rice. Appetizers, $3 to $9. Main courses, $8 to $25. Corkage, $10. WINE PICKS: 1999 Domaine Bastide Blanche Bandol rose, Provence; Veuve Clicquot Brut NV, Champagne. FACTS: Dinner daily. Lunch weekdays. Valet parking. Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.

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