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.

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.

Much more pleasing to the eye were the lovely Chinese entrees. The menu is traditional, which is to say it lacks some of the epicurean finish of some modern "upscale" Chinese restaurants in Dade County. (The egg foo yungs, chow meins, and moo goo gai pans of yesteryear make return appearances here.) The Hunan Beef slices with baby corn, ginger, scallions, and green peppers ($14.95) could not have been more fragrant. And the chicken with walnuts, snow peas, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and vegetables ($13.95) offered that peculiar distinction of not being overpoweringly sweet, as many Sinophiles patrons prefer their dishes incorporating nuts to be. A simple veggie dish such as broccoli with garlic sauce ($5.25) would render the President's ban on broccoli as ludicrous as his choice of running mate. And any of the fried rices are both generous and flavorful.

And now, in lieu of dessert -- though you can order pineapple melba ($3.95), coconut snowball ($3.50), orHaagen-Dazs ice cream with honey walnuts ($3.50) -- we must adjourn to the bar for some entertainment. (By the way, the drinks here, while no match for the encyclopedic cocktail cart at Trader Vic's, must be counted a success: the banana daiquiri ($5.25) may be the tastiest in Miami.) It is in this retro-Vegas setting that Christine Lee's memory-lane experience attempts to reach a fitting culmination. The current show-stopper is a woman named Bunny Osborn. She sings.

Well, kind of.
I never believed I would live to hear Al Jolson's signature tune, "Swanee," performed live. And performed like this! "Swaaaaneeeee, how I love ya, how I love ya, my dear old Swaaaaneeee," wailed the over-bejeweled, over-mascaraed, way over-enthusiastic, and way, way over-forty Bunny, aided by a competent trio of Gaslight regulars (including pianist Maria Velasco). She sang her little heart out to a congregation of enthusiastic friends from the Old Testament and still had the energy for an on-stage change of costume. (Bunny transformed from a blue-sequinned nightmare to a black-sequinned horror faster than you could say "My Way.") After a lengthy and pretty devastating assault on Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll," Bunny offered a medley that included songs by Burt Bacharach and Michel Legrand, much to the tear-wiping delight of the long-in-the-tooth spectators. But the socko finish was coming, and it came in true old showbiz fashion. (Bunny was obviously reared on a steady diet of the Hollywood Squares.)

The pianist tinkled the introductory rhythm of "New York, New York," and Bunny got to work. She thanked all her performing friends on the ships of Florida, all her friends in the Catskills, the trio, the waiters, and maybe God, too. This homily went on for a good ten minutes, and I wondered whether the pianist, who somehow kept the tune going, might develop acute carpal tunnel syndrome. Then, Bunny warbled, "Start spreading the news/I'm leaving today/Right to the very heart of it/ New York, New York." This after-dinner serving of the performer's craft was becoming about as palatable as a bottle of Immodium A-D. And just as I could contain my laughter no longer, this indefatigably cheery Borscht-belter beckoned me -- and another guest -- on-stage, at which point we ran out of Christine Lee's like Quincy Watts at the end of the 400-meter race in Barcelona.

It was either that, or goodbye, walnut chicken.

18401 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 932-1145. Open daily from 4:45 p.m. to midnight.


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