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Clear Concept

Squab fried to the delicate crispness of the top of a crme brle (Photo by Anne Fishbein)

From the week it opened last year, New Concept was celebrated as a beacon of Chinese cuisine in Los Angeles, an elegant Monterey Park restaurant with actual mainland ownership and a chef, Chen Chen Liang, who had reinvented the possibilities of Chinese cooking in America. The foodie community swooned over the coffee-flavored pork, the oatmeal prawns and the soda-pop chicken wings, the Macao pork and the fried tofu, the king crab and the preserved goose feet. New Concept quickly became the restaurant of choice for affluent Westsiders driving to Monterey Park for a Chinese meal, and there are evenings when the Industry guys hunched over the roast duck and the Taiwan-style chicken outnumber the Chinese, which is almost unthinkable in the San Gabriel Valley.

Still, from the very beginning I have been profoundly skeptical about New Concept. A lot of the creative dishes were just awful, among them the vaunted coffee chop and the special prawns, a particularly dreadful concoction of mushy flash-fried shrimp and unseasoned drifts of toasted oatmeal, a deconstruction of seafood congee (I have to guess) that managed to suck all of the flavor out of both crustacean and grain. The dim sum was precious and clumsy compared to what was coming out of the kitchen at Sea Harbour and Mission 261, not to mention what you could get just a few blocks away at NBC or Ocean Star.

I rolled my eyes just at the thought of the clam lettuce wraps, in which prime seafood was sautéed into pencil erasers in a stab at reinventing the squab lettuce wraps popular in a lot of Cantonese restaurants, or the bizarre Thai-style tilapia. Even the menus are weird: two expensively bound photo menus plus a laminated list of specials, none of which make it easy to order a meal.

But when I couldn’t locate a noodle shop I had been tipped to by a friend, I found myself having dinner at a half-empty New Concept for the first time in almost a year, and I was completely surprised to have a great meal. There was spiced Chinese bacon sharing a pretty composed plate with steamed Chinese broccoli, and a dish of fried, bacon-wrapped asparagus served with flying-saucer-shaped patties of fried minced cuttlefish that had been studded with kernels of fresh corn. The roast duck was crisp and succulent — the chef seasons his barbecued meats with a big jolt of cinnamon. The fish soup, in the style of Shunde, near Hong Kong, was a thick, chunky pottage practically unflavored except for the various fragrances of very fresh fish. And the pan-fried prawns with oatmeal were as bad as they had ever been — the only dish on the table that wasn’t inhaled within seconds, except, perhaps, for a plate of soggy hollow “vegetable,” ong choy, sautéed with chile and fermented bean curd (the same dish eaten a few days later, with the fermented tofu on the side as a kind of sauce, on the other hand, was delicious).

Could the restaurant possibly have improved that much? Over the next week, I had a plate of ultrarich Macao pork, which is like side pork cooked down to pure animal essence, sliced and served cold, and a plate of slippery steamed rice noodles tossed with an austere spoonful of lean pork ribs in black-bean sauce. There were extremely good fried squab, its skin cooked to the delicate crispness of the top of a crème brûlée, a delicious sort of succotash made with chopped shrimp stir-fried with pine nuts, red peppers and corn kernels, and a dish of frog fried with tea leaves that is easily one of the best frogs I have ever eaten.

The small tiger fish steamed with scallions was one of the best steamed fish I have ever eaten too, although the memory of it is somewhat embittered by the fact that it cost $72 — about $12 a bite — which the waiter who suggested I order it didn’t bother to mention. (The very next meal, I ended up with a $42 bowl of tasty crab soup I hadn’t meant to order — vigilance helps a lot here.)

The morning dim sum, which I hadn’t liked at all a year ago, yielded the gooiest rice noodles in town, utterly crisp barbecued-pork pies, luxuriously plump steamed chicken feet with chile, and funkily splendid meatballs steamed with abalone. A dish of various preserved meats blasted in a furnace-hot clay pot until it was fragrant and smoky enough to perfume the room was as good as I’ve ever had, and I order clay-pot rice all the time. Game, set, match to Mr. Chen.

Chinese cuisine is not immutable. Chinese cookbooks from the teens and ’20s, which are fairly maximalist in their use of prep time and lard, differ as much from what you might find in a restaurant today as Escoffier’s menus do from Thursday’s list of specials at L’Orangerie. Chinese cooking cheerfully adapts local ingredients in places ranging from the jungles of Burma to the Peruvian Andes to Chinois. But still . . . oatmeal shrimp? Give me old-fashioned chicken feet every time.?

New Concept, 700 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park; (626) 282-6800. Dim sum Mon.–Fri. 10:30 a.m.–3 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 10 a.m.–3 p.m.; dinner nightly 5–11 p.m. No alcohol. MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $35–$70, substantially more with shark’s fin, abalone or live seafood. Recommended dishes: tea-flavored pan-fried frog; bacon-wrapped asparagus with cuttlefish corn cakes; dim sum.


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