The Gossiping Gourmet: A taste of Taiwan in O.C.

China has a great variety of regional cuisines yet, locally, we only see a few of these represented, mainly Cantonese, Szechuan and Beijing, or a combination thereof.

We went in search of something different, and found Chef Chen, an attractive, small restaurant that serves a variety of Taiwanese dishes as well as an extensive mélange of more familiar fare.

We focused exclusively on the cuisine of this mountainous island, which has access to plentiful seafood. With the advice of our waitress, we were able to choose typical Taiwanese dishes.

After quite the conversation, we were so anxious to put in our order that we forgot to ask for the dishes to be staggered. So, we very quickly had a table full of goodies.

A huge clay pot of seafood combination soup was the first to arrive. The excellent broth got better and better and deeper in flavor as the seafood and vegetables released their juices into the mix. The huge bowl was brimming with soup, shrimp, calamari, fish, tofu, cellophane noodles, shiitakes, bamboo shoots and napa cabbage. Three of us barely made a dent in this Brobdingnagian basin before our scallion pancakes arrived.

Legend has it that Marco Polo missed scallion pancakes so much when he returned to Italy that he got his chefs to make a variation. Some Chinese people believe that this is the real origin of pizza. No Italian would agree!

These wheat-based pancakes are primarily served in northern China and Taiwan. Chopped scallions are added to the dough; they're brushed with oil and fried. These were rather greasy and needed more green onion. Marco wouldn't have longed for these.

The restaurant serves two preparations of smoked duck. One is fried and has crispy skin; the other, of a Taiwan style, has soft skin. They also serve traditional Peking duck that must be ordered 24 hours in advance.

Because we were on a quest for Taiwanese dishes, we chose the soft-skinned version. The meat had similar seasonings to Peking duck with the addition of a slightly smoky flavor. The cooking method resulted in incredibly moist and juicy meat, more so than any Peking duck we've encountered.

However, there is a thick layer of fat between the flesh and the skin. We just peeled it off and enjoyed the succulent meat.

A steamer basket of pork dumplings was distinguished by the fact that a broth oozed out of the dumplings when you bit into them. After the first one, we were prepared and caught the juices before they ran down our chins.

The pork mixture was combined with a bit of finely chopped vegetables. It was rather bland and needed to be dipped in the vinegar and ginger sauce provided and perhaps finished with soy and hot sauce (if that is your pleasure). The wrapper was a house-made dough and quite good.

We like bold flavors, so we are surprised when a subtly seasoned dish really turns out to be the prizewinner of the evening. When we asked our waitress for another distinctly Taiwanese preparation, she suggested fish filet with green vegetable.

It sounded boring. However, we all agreed it was quite the opposite. The appearance of the food was all white (both the fish and the sauce) with a white-fleshed vegetable that had a vivid green exterior.

Our waitress didn't know how to translate the name of the vegetable, but we are fairly sure it is called Chinese okra. It looks like an English cucumber but has the texture of melon. It had a delicate slightly sweet flavor and was totally addictive.

The slices of whitefish were very tender and moist, and the lightly thickened sauce lusciously linked the elements together.

If you are up for a Chinese dessert, which we were not, they offer rice balls in rice wine syrup. It's a delicious pleasure to explore the rich array of Asian cuisines available in Orange County.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

Chef Chen

Where: 5408B Walnut Ave., Irvine

When: Daily from 11:30 a.m. till close

Prices:

Appetizers, Dim sum, noodles, rice and soups: $1.99 to $7.99

Entrées: $6.99 to $24.99

Desserts: $6.99 when available

Wine: N/A

Call: (949) 786-8898