China Beach

One of the greatest ever stories of multicultural misconduct was related by Peter Ustinov some years ago on The Tonight Show. A delightful raconteur and sometime wit, the portly Ustinov captivated a spellbound Johnny Carson with the tale of a wealthy Texan family at a Polynesian restaurant. As an intro, Ustinov offered a spot-on description of Trader Vic's, one of the famous chain of Polynesian restaurants that habitually reside in American-owned hotels around the world. "Acrylic depictions of Hawaiian village life," murmured Ustinov, moving on to the anecdote, which dealt with an oil baron and his extensive family -- carbon copies of the Ewing clan on Dallas -- as they arrogantly and loudly held forth in the cavernously dim, faux South Pacific setting, guzzling singapore slings and scorpions and chowing down on crab rangoon, spareribs, rumaki, and egg rolls. At this point the honcho, the spitting image of old Jock, briefly left the gathering and took his tropical libation and half-smoked Marlboro with him to inspect one of Vic's "depictions." The assembled kinfolk stirred not one bit, waiting for the patriarchal pronouncement on the ornamental objets d'art. Finally, the old man returned, sat down, took one last puff of smoke, and growled: "Ah thaught id wuz a Gaujahn, but id wadn't."

The point of the story is that some restaurants have a way of bringing out the Philistine in everyone. The plutocratic Texan was referring to Paul Gauguin, and the probability of one of his paintings hanging at a Trader Vic's is as likely as rediscovering Michelangelo's Pieta at Pizza Hut. Some patrons don't know better. Neither do some restaurant owners.

And hotel restaurants -- especially those whose clientele varies from day to day and where quality is as variable as monsoon weather -- are particularly prone to setting an unsophisticated tone, and therefore, eliciting a similarly vulgarian response. But there are some rare exceptions, as in the case of Christine Lee's Gaslight, which has been located for more than eighteen years at the Thunderbird Hotel in the northernmost reaches of Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. As wonderful and inviting as it is bizarre and anachronistic, the Gaslight is indeed well named: As Chinese-American restaurants go, it's a time warp, recalling Forties movies and the accompanying Oriental stereotypes as vividly as the superb preparation of cuisine -- much of it not of Chinese derivation -- recreates a rich legacy of immigrant kitchen magic.

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Christine Lee's Restaurant

17082 Collins Ave.
Sunny Isles Beach, FL 33160-3642

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: North Dade

As I've contended in the past, the most effective response to questionable authenticity is sovereign execution -- and happily, we get that at Christine Lee's. The dishes form a hybrid of assimilated Cantonese, the first Chinese cuisine to reach America, and more region-specific Hunan, Mandarin, and Szechuan specialties, which became popular in the United States during the Seventies. But there's more: depending on your mood, Christine Lee's is also a steak house, or a surf-and-turf emporium, or a "continental" restaurant.

Fact is, the Gaslight's menu is a veritable multicultural blueprint. From Maine lobster to orange blossom steak ($21.95), from blackened filet mignon ($23.50) to pan-fried Chinese or Szechuan dumplings ($6.95 and $6.50), from red snapper almondine ($16.95) to Peking duck ($32.50), and from veal marsala ($16.95) to moo shoo pork ($13.25), Christine Lee's Gaslight takes us back to an epoch when Americans met the Orient just about halfway, when Chinese cuisine was exotic and novel enough to be cause for circumstance and celebration, and when the prerequisites of elegance and attentive service were integral to the dining experience. The doyenne of Chinese-American cooking (after whom the restaurant is named), Christine Lee has performed a rare feat in maintaining high culinary standards in this area for more than 30 years.

The Gaslight occupies a large section of the Thunderbird and contains a tropical bar and performing stage. Yes, there is nightly entertainment at Christine Lee's, but a discussion of its brand of musical theater must wait until the conclusion of the meal.

Among the appetizers, of which I tasted all but two, the roast pork tenderloin slices ($5.95) were as meltingly soft as veal scallops, and their flavor was both enticing and delicate. The above-mentioned Chinese dumplings held their gingery tang in check, while the accompanying soy-based sauce was a fitting compliment to each mound. One of the best was listed as a house specialty, chicken wings in oyster sauce ($5.95). Here the overpoweringly pungent sauce was ladled economically and to great effect. (Who needs Buffalo wings after these?) The one bad blot on the preliminary proceedings was an egg roll ($3.80) stuffed with a gelatinously putrid pork that was crisp, all right, but felt no more appealing inside the mouth than a punch in the nose -- this roll was more worthy of Bruce Lee than Christine.

We ordered only one item from the continental section of the menu -- an expensive one. A three-pound steamed Maine lobster (market price) arrived for one of my ravenous guests, who blanched at the sheer massiveness of this extended crustacean. "I think I'll do my bit from Splash now," she joked, making a reference to a scene in that film when Daryl Hannah, playing a mermaid, bites into the lobster claw and eats it like fried chicken, to the dismay of Tom Hanks. The Gaslight's preparation -- and presentation -- of lobster was magnificent. But this mammoth seafarer was the Jethro Bodine of lobsters; just setting eyes on it was enough to misplace your appetite.

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