Cantonese Reprise

Season has returned to South Beach. I know this not because Lincoln Road is so jammed with tourists that shopkeepers routinely ask, "Where are you from?" (God forbid you should have a semblance of a sunburn: Automatically you're assumed to have fled the Midwest.) I know it not because jogging on the beach has become akin to dodge ball, given the number of Frisbee, football, volleyball, and pick-up soccer games being played on the sand. Nor do I know it's season from the turkey vultures now wintering along the causeways.

No, the reason I realize the annual mania has resumed is because local restaurants have been turned topsy-turvy. A recent meal at Rosinella, a usually reliable Italian joint on Lincoln Road that I frequent for its homemade gnocchi, was a logistical disaster: Of the three dishes we ordered, only one arrived after a 40 minute breadless wait. Servers at NOA (Noodles of Asia) brought us the wrong items twice before finally hitting the mark with the duck and soba noodle combo we'd actually requested; they are also unfamiliar with the menu, assuring us that some dishes weren't spicy when they practically vibrated with chili peppers.

But I can deal, sort of, with discombobulation and poor training. On SoBe that's par. What really drives me nuts, though, is the condescending attitude I encountered at Joe Allen, one of my few genuine haunts. Last year when I wrote about the upscale diner, I admired several of its characteristics: the hidden location, the neighborhood crowd, and both the menu and waitstaff's refreshing lack of pretension. I've recommended the place not just for its tasty American fare, but also because I've always felt comfortable dropping by, my daughter in her stroller in tow. Well, no more. When the baby and I showed up at 6:30 p.m. recently, the hostess turned me away. "Oh, I am so sorry," she said. "We simply can't accommodate the stroller."

I glanced around the restaurant. It was full -- of empty tables. Few people dine on South Beach before the moon rises, which is precisely why baby and I have become early birds. "I eat here all the time with her," I protested.

"We're about to get very busy," the hostess replied with an air of self-importance. "From now on you simply must make a reservation." In other words we couldn't even wait for a table. She quickly turned her attention to the party of four that had entered behind us, who also had no reservation. But then they didn't have a baby. "Can you be out by 9:00?" she asked them before leading them to a table.

Christine Lee's, a Cantonese restaurant in Sunny Isles Beach, could give Joe Allen a lesson in courtesy. Like Joe Allen, the 202-seat eatery is subject to seasonal fluctuations. Like Joe Allen, customers are catered to in the off-season. And like Joe Allen, when the restaurant is busy, as it has been since the snowbirds have come to roost, Christine Lee's encourages reservations. But unlike the suddenly snotty Joe Allen, Christine Lee's doesn't sneer at business: It accommodates customers regardless of time of year, baby or no baby. On a recent Sunday evening when the place was packed, my daughter and I were welcomed, even courted; the staff gave her chopsticks to play with and orange slices to teeth on while I exercised my grown-up choppers on a prime sirloin steak.

The juicy, tender beef, simply broiled and comparable in quality to that served in finer local steak houses, is probably the best reason to visit Christine Lee's. (It can also be ordered as Chinese steak, which is served sliced over vegetables.) Owner Mary Lee Carothers's mother Christine Lee started the business in the early Sixties in New Jersey before opening a second location in the Golden Strand hotel in North Miami Beach; she eventually closed the Jersey restaurant to concentrate on the Florida business, moving it to the Thunderbird hotel when the Golden Strand was sold. After 21 years in the Thunderbird, problems with the landlord and the threat of another sale pushed Lee and her husband Steve Mallock out the door and across the street to the restaurant's present home, a former store in the RK Plaza. But while locations have changed and management shifted (Lee passed away two years ago and Mallock retired) the menu has remained consistent. "My mother believed that not everyone could eat Chinese every day of the week," Carothers confides. "She wanted to get them [customers] out one night for Chinese food, the next night for Continental. She didn't want to be identified as just Chinese."

That philosophy explains the menu's Continental specialties, which include Dover sole almondine, shrimp scampi, and broiled spring chicken. These main courses are served with rolls and butter, choice of starch (baked potato, French fries, potato skins, or pasta), and a tossed salad. Many folks stick with meat dishes, however; a glance around the dining room revealed at least as many double-cut loin lamb chops, veal chops, and steaks as covered dishes of mu shu pork and honey-garlic chicken. In fact Carothers notes that American fare accounts for about 60 percent of her sales, adding, "A lot of people like to start with Chinese appetizers, then order a steak."

A good dining plan, I agree, except for one problem: The Chinese appetizers could use some improvement. All of the ones we ordered arrived dripping with grease. Shrimp tempura was soggy, the shrimp lost in sticky breading. Chicken wings with oyster sauce were slick with oil. The skin of the egg rolls, where it wasn't limp, oozed pockets of liquid fat, and the cabbage-pork-shrimp filling tasted old. We fared best with the sliced roast pork tenderloin and the barbecued spare ribs, both of which were meaty where they weren't marbled.

We gave the egg rolls a second chance at another meal, but again it seemed as if they had been preprepared -- cooked twice. Pork fried rice, served with the main courses, was cold, lumpy, and lifeless both times we tried it. An entree of pork lo mein was more invigorating, the chunks of barbecued pork bursting with flavor. And an appetizer of plump steamed spinach dumplings was a great way to dodge the artery-hardening stuff. Soups, however, were disappointing. Only two mushroom slices drifted through a bowl of lukewarm mushroom egg drop soup. As for the house special, won ton soup, it contained one jumbo shrimp and one slice of roast pork; the more plentiful won tons were doughy, and the broth was insipid.

The Continental main courses reminded me of a time when people here knew only two Chinese dishes, chow mein and chop suey, and diners were offered a choice of dinner rolls or rice with their entree. I skipped over the filet mignon with bearnaise sauce in favor of the steak kew (the same cut of beef); it was cubed and stir-fried with bamboo shoots, black mushroom caps, water chestnuts, snow peas, and bok choy, then served in a rich brown sauce. We were impressed by the medium-rare meat. (I've often found lower-quality, gristly beef in dishes such as this one.) Christine Lee's doesn't cheat here. On the other hand the cooks could use some practice differentiating between pork fat and pork. Imperial pork chops were thin-sliced and then deep-fried and coated with a glaze as red as a fire engine. The sauce successfully masked the fact that some of these pared-down pieces were all suet and no meat.

I often crave good Cantonese fare, which its detractors call bland but its proponents consider subtle. Shrimp with lobster sauce was a terrific example of the difference. A handful of jumbos, succulent and tightly curled, were dressed with a ground pork sauce rife with swirled egg. The shrimp easily stood out from the sauce, which in some restaurants can be garlicky and overwhelming. And I'm all for lemon chicken when the white-meat poultry is battered and deep-fried rather than stir-fried. But Christine Lee's version didn't work. Though the chicken itself was exceptionally pliant, the coating was sodden and leaden rather than crispy and light. The lemon sauce, served on the side, was too sweet, more like orange marmalade than a sophisticated citrus accent. Actually the lemon sauce could suffice as a dessert of sorts, an alternative to the current and uninteresting choice between ice cream and pineapple chunks.

Unlike the dessert menu, the wine list is sophisticated and varied, with vintages from California, France, Italy, and Chile. But I question how the wine is being stored. Our Chilean Caliterra chardonnay was spoiled, and the replacement we ordered, a Round Hill chardonnay reserve, was on its way out. As is Christine Lee's -- literally. In about eighteen months the restaurant plans to move yet again, this time to the Diplomat hotel in Hollywood. No doubt the loyal clientele, which has trailed the restaurant like Deadheads from locale to locale, will follow. And for Christine Lee's good steak and fast, efficient service, I'd consider doing so myself. But if we're talking only about the Chinese fare, then I guess it's just a little too far to push a stroller.

Christine Lee's
17082 Collins Ave, North Miami Beach; 305-947-1717. Lunch and dinner Monday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. till 11:00 p.m. Dinner Saturday and Sunday from 4:00 till 11:00 p.m.

Egg rolls (2) $3.50
Steamed spinach dumplings $5.25
Lemon chicken $12.50
Shrimp with lobster sauce $16.95
Sirloin steak $27.

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