The Gossiping Gourmet: Peony and Sushi Corner a pleasant surprise

We were flabbergasted. We found ourselves eating possibly the best shrimp we had ever tasted.

Caught in the wild, the shrimp were jumbo in size, incredibly tender, moist, juicy and tasting so fresh.

We chose the shrimp with honey garlic from a selection of three preparations. The sauce was light and delicately sweet, with a hint of garlic that subtly enhanced the perfectly cooked crustaceans.

A sprinkling of sesame seeds completed the dish. The florets of broccoli that came on the side were also as fresh as vegetables can be, with just the right touch of crunch.

The surprise was that we were dining at Peony, the healthy Chinese restaurant in the little food court on the corner of Broadway and Coast Highway in Laguna Beach. They recently moved from a very small space, where their business was primarily take-out and delivery, to a larger space next door.

The new space actually has a pleasant little dining area, decorated with wall-sized photographs of the family's village in Szechwan province. The Tang dynasty-style clay figures depicting everyday life, which sit atop the front counter, also charmed us.

Peony has now added a sushi bar, called Sushi Corner, with a separate menu so you can sample both cuisines in one meal.

The Chinese food at Peony is light and healthy. They have replaced peanut oil with olive oil and use much less of it when they fry. They serve whitemeat chicken only and use no MSG.

Noodle dishes may be ordered with chow mein (wheat) or rice noodles. They offer brown rice, as well as white, and, when possible, will prepare dishes to accommodate special dietary restrictions. Most of their sauces are quite light and subtle, but very tasty.

The house garlic chicken is marked on the menu with a chili pepper, indicating a very spicy dish, but we found it to be more on the medium side. The sliced breast meat was unusually tender and moist; it was stir-fried with a generous mélange of broccoli, carrots and onions in a light soy-based sauce.

Veering from traditional Chinese chicken dishes are: teriyaki chicken, curry chicken and chicken with mango and asparagus.

An ample portion of tender and moist steamed fillets of sole with a garlic, soy, wine sauce with no oil — a dieter's delight — rested on a bed of delicately seasoned cabbage and carrots.

Still more unusual is the absence of pork dishes.

Beef dishes include Mongolian beef , Korean BBQ beef, beef with pineapple and, of course, the classic beef with broccoli. To please the vegan diner, in addition to standard vegetarian offerings, they also have several with mock beef or chicken made from seitan (wheat gluten).

Two new and non-Chinese appetizers are sweet potato fries and seasoned spinach balls rolled in sliced almonds. The fries pop up again in crispy sweet potato salad.

If you and your dining companion can't agree on whether to go for Chinese or Japanese, here's the perfect way to keep the peace. The Sushi Corner has vegetable rolls, entrée rolls, special rolls with Laguna place names such as Three Arch Bay roll, sashimi platters and a few side salads.

We ordered two selections: the sashimi and mango plate and the yellowtail roll. We were disappointed in all the fish, which lacked flavor, as it wasn't at peak freshness. It didn't taste old, just boring.

They still have a robust take-out and delivery business. In nice weather, you can dine outside in the food court that has recently been gussied up a bit.

This light, healthy, tasty cuisine is the kind of food you could eat every night.

If You Go

What: Peony and Sushi Corner (949) 497-5777;

Where: 213 Broadway, Laguna Beach

When: 11a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily


• Appetizers, soups, salads: $3 to $8.95

• Entrées:

$6.50 to $9.95 (for lunch); $9.75 to $16 (for dinner)

• Desserts: sweet potato ice cream $4.50

• Wine and sake:

Glass: $5 to $9.50

• Happy Hour:

When: 4 to 7 p.m. daily

Beer: $1.50 per bottle of domestic and $2.50 per bottle of imported beer

Special Sake: $1

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