Remember the Mein

After dining at the month-old Chinese restaurant Wok & Roll, I've spent an agonizing week. Not that the fresh fare prepared by two-time Chaine des Rotisseurs (the French culinary society) award-winning chef Michael Choi wasn't delicious, the service solicitous -- they were. Not that the geometric walls (each sponged a different color), high ceiling, metallic floor, and stainless steel open kitchen aren't attractive and inviting. They are. Not that the multiregional menu and dim sum dishes don't fill the stylistic niche between South Beach neighbors get-it-while-it's-hot Charlotte's Chinese Kitchen and the more grandiose Chrysanthemum. They do.

It's just that this place reminds me of somewhere else, a trendy little joint on Newport Beach Boulevard in Costa Mesa, California. Striped with sand and sweat (a condition that guaranteed other customers would give us plenty of privacy), my husband and I used to go there for Chinese chicken salad after playing Saturday morning soccer matches on the beach. Or we'd take visiting relatives there for a "Califoriental" dinner of spicy soups and noodles garnished with sprouts of all kinds. Or we'd wait in the Sunday brunch line for vegetarian dim sum, a variety of dumplings stuffed with herbs and steamed with fragrant sauces. We made up there after fights and headed straight there from the airport after we landed for a recent vacation. But for the life of me, I can't remember its name.

I'm often accused of invoking convenient symptoms of Halfzheimer's (forgetting only what I want to, like picking up the dry cleaning), but the truth is my job depends on my memory. Amnesia regarding restaurants is a condition I take seriously, especially since I continue to suffer from it while I'm writing this article. So consider this my therapy: I'm hoping by the time I conclude this piece I'll have remembered the unforgettable name of that Other Danged Eatery (ODE). Maybe if I don't think about it, it'll come back to me (although in my experience that works about as well as "if you love something, set it free").

Like the ODE, Wok & Roll offers a lovely array of hot and cold appetizers, including an always-available dim sum menu complete with captioned photographs that serve as descriptions. Don't expect the traditional dim sum carts, however; as with the ODE, the mod Wok & Roll is into both conservation (why waste food?) and on-the-spot preparation (why let it sit for hours?). The result here was plump, piping-hot shrimp dumplings replete with scallions and a gingery dipping sauce. Spices-steamed dumplings, on the other hand, were served cold. Filled with pork, the delicate-skinned ravioli were a bit heartier, especially given the sauce in which they were soaking. This stuff was peppered with chilies so powerful that my mouth felt hot as a wok. (For a less fiery but more warming start, the same dumplings come in a rich chicken broth complemented by roast pork, like wonton soup.)

ODE update: The word cafe is somewhere in the title. It's all starting to come back to me now.

Dim sum doesn't comprise dumplings only. We enjoyed a pair of stuffed eggplant pieces, the purple vegetable split in half like a hot dog bun, sandwiching chopped beef. Dropped in the deep-fryer, these were crisp and delightful, covered with a light, mild sauce. I was also glad to see my favorite, stuffed lotus leaf. This fragrant wrap, which the Chinese use to steam food the way Mexicans use corn husks, popped open to reveal savory, jasmine-scented rice and a mound of chopped pork, beef, shrimp, and egg.

Other starters are found under the heading "Kabob Appetizers & Salads." Egg rolls were standard issue, a pair of crunchy skins surrounding ground pork, chopped shrimp, and shredded cabbage, celery, and carrots. The house specialty salad was a bigger treat. Strips of white meat chicken, sauteed lightly, lay alongside cucumber, iceberg lettuce, tomato, bean sprouts, and cold lo-mein noodles. The mixture was united by a sweetish Chinese rice-wine vinaigrette.

ODE update: It's not cafe, it's bistro. A breakthrough!
Appetizers are so numerous that it's easy to make a meal out of them, but then you'd miss the Califoriental presentation of the main courses. Choi, who operated the Fragrant Vegetable restaurant in Monterey, learned a thing or two about fresh vegetables out in that western sea air. Our entree of sauteed scallops in vinegar sauce was accompanied by whole baby bok choy, lightly wokked for maximum color. Though unexpectedly deep-fried, the scallops were superb too, coated in a reddish, tangy sauce that we found addictive.

Eggplant in garlic sauce was served in a clay pot set up on a burner. This bubbling stew consisted of melting chunks of the sauteed vegetable as well as julienned carrots, bamboo shoots, and wood ear mushrooms. Strips of beef added dark character to the garlicky sauce, which had a wonderful flavor despite not being spicy, as billed.

ODE update: Three words, I think. Something-something bistro. Dim Sum Bistro?

Another dish that depended on a fiery presentation wasn't as successful. Flaming pineapple fried rice, whose dramatic appearance we were really looking forward to, simply wasn't on fire. The pineapple, a whole fruit hollowed out and filled with rice, was cold to the touch. "It flamed before," our waitress said. Obviously long before. Fortunately the fried rice within was beautifully done. Cooked without soy sauce to retain the pearly nature of the grain, the rice was laced with sweet white onions, scallions, egg, and whole shrimp. The sole flaw was the (superfluous) addition of fake crabmeat, a flavor I always find unpleasantly dominant. Mu shu beef was the only other dish we didn't appreciate, mostly because the filling contained very little beef. The assortment of egg, scallions, wood ear mushrooms, cabbage, and carrots, which had a nice hoisin kick, was also far too oily, the grease leaking out of the crepelike pancakes.

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