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Mission Accomplished 

Thursday, Jan 8 2004
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

Mission 261, the latest dim sum megalopolis in San Gabriel, may be the most ambitious Chinese restaurant ever to open in the United States: a mammoth Cantonese banquet hall fitted into a sprawling adobe complex built a hundred years ago as San Gabriel’s city hall, a high-ceilinged fortress of bird’s nest, sun-dried abalone and rare conpoy just down the block from Junipero Serra’s San Gabriel Mission, the first Spanish settlement in this part of California. Some of the banquet rooms open onto a patio shaded by a 120-year-old grapevine; others resemble first-class airport lounges or posh conference rooms in five-star Hong Kong hotels. A certain level of Chinese dining has always been about reflective beauty, the sort of peaceful contemplation that is pretty hard to find in a country of 1.2 billion people, and as far as I know, Mission 261 is the only Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area that attempts this kind of quiet luxury — much less in a space that reflects rancho-era California instead of crystal-dripping Shenzen.

So when you walk into Mission 261, you see no live-seafood tanks, hear no karaoke-fueled wedding parties, wade into no roiling press of humanity. In a Chinese restaurant scene thick with bargain rock cod and two-for-one lobster deals, Mission 261’s banquet menus range upwards of $1,200 for a table of 10, although a decent dinner can be arranged for about a third of that. The cognac is old, the shark’s fin ultrafine, the Burgundy premier cru.

The suckling pig, a house specialty, is made from an animal so young it is practically prenatal, brined and roasted and roasted and brined until its skin is as thin and crisp as the burnt wisp of caramel that tops a really good crème brûlée and the meat, nourished with the pig’s fine layer of fat, is as rich and tender as an infant’s first coos. Most Chinese roast pig is served with small saucers of hoisin to be used as a dipping sauce, but the flesh of this pig is so delicate that connoisseurs season it with a fine sprinkling of sugar instead.

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Still, the restaurant is very young, the kitchen still settling into its own skin.

But the dim sum is already extraordinary, easily the best in California at the moment — less a teeming mass feed with oceans of congee and fleets of Sterno-spewing carts than a sort of aestheticized dim sum meal, where you sit with a pot of really great chrysanthemum tea or puer or zhu cha or whatever and a few small plates of attractive, exquisitely prepared food, the clatter of plates replaced by the contemplative sounds of a live virtuoso of the ch’in, the quiet, zitherlike instrument of the great Chinese philosophers.

I like gooey steamed har gao and flash-boiled Chinese broccoli as much as the next dim sum freak, but the dishes at Mission 261 seem almost from a different planet. Delicious steamed dumplings of shrimp and black cod are shaped into floppy noodle carp, complete with wee cubes of carrot stuffed into the eye sockets; “butterflies” bulge with minced fungi and greens; deep-fried “bees” of chopped seafood, formed around salted egg yolks, are striped with strips of vegetable and given wings fashioned from toasted garlic chips. If the dumplings were dried out or flavorless, the fanciful shapes might be meaningless, even annoying, but they are so fresh, so bursting with juice, that the follies are as charming as fairy stories.

There are tiny fried herrings called shisamo, dipped in pepper salt and quickly deep-fried — the fish are almost supernaturally crisp, and a high percentage of them are plump with pale yellow roe. Pan-seared rice noodles ride that fine line between liquid and solid, rolled into little cylinders, charred to an ethereal smokiness in a clay pot and doused at the table with a Cantonese stew of beef brisket and cubed turnip that becomes almost violently anise-scented when it hits the superheated vessel. Rice, almost al dente, is lightly poached in a master stock with bits of eel and a tiny, funky dice of deep-fried dried fish — the dish is superb, and quite different from the restaurant’s traditional congee with pork and black slivers of preserved egg, which is also quite good.

The more usual items — the crystal-clear shrimp dumplings, the open-faced pork dumplings, and steamed barbecued-pork bao — are of a consistently high standard; and the rice steamed in lotus leaves, which resembles a sort of delicate barbecue-

flavored risotto when you unwrap the packet, is to the usual item that goes by that description what Le Bernardin’s seafood boudin is to a breakfast sausage from the atelier of Farmer John. Try the cold sliced-beef terrine drizzled with soy sauce,

the subtly crunchy baked buns stuffed with barbecued pork,

the meltingly soft chicken feet with black beans and the trembling, star-shaped lozenges of almond custard studded with

yellow split peas.

As at Sea Harbour, Mission 261’s sister restaurant in nearby Rosemead, you order dim sum not by pointing at carts but

by ticking off requests on a form that may or may not coincide with what the Chinese menu, the one actually used by the kitchen, happens to be showing that day. Rest assured, the serendipitous element of randomness has not disappeared

from the process.

And don’t forget to request a bit of the restaurant’s

excellent XO sauce, a chunky, chewy relish made from dried seafood and dried chiles. It’s the Chinese-restaurant equivalent of being able to command a small dish of truffles at a fancy French restaurant, and you can be sure that it will come in handy somewhere.

Mission 261, 261 S. Mission Drive, San Gabriel, (626) 588-1666. Dim sum served Mon.–Fri., 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sat.–Sun., 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Full bar. Lot parking. Dim sum lunch for two, food only, $22-$38. AE, MC, V.

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