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Chinese Roulette

When they go out for Chinese, Upper West Siders are used to taking unnecessary culinary risks, but Ruby Foo's dramatically improves the odds.

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It took his own domestic suey for Woody Allen to finally stop blaming Upper West Side Jews for instigating all the ills of modern culture. Yet it's weird how he missed the home team's single worst cultural contribution -- those sorry piles of subgum that pass for Chinese food above Canal Street these days. Having been weaned in the suburbs and outer boroughs on egg rolls and shrimp in lobster sauce (at places with names like King Yum and Hop Kee), the generation that gentrified upper Broadway and Columbus Avenue in the seventies soon discovered that there was almost nowhere to get the kind of high from lo mein they'd become addicted to as children. Naturally, they panicked. They needed mu shu quick, wor shu often, and moo goo close. But what about good?

Thus begat the Empire of Szechuan, and soon, any storefront sporting a red-bowed philodendron and a sign promising no MSG (Yeah? Try removing it from soup) got locals rattling their chopsticks like old Belgian lace-makers at a crewel-off -- no matter how bad the food. Today, the neighborhood boasts some of the worst kitchens that ever made a Peking duck. As Mama, the cell-block warden in Chicago, sings, "What ever happened to class?"

Stephen Hanson has it. Plus smarts. And he artfully combined both to conjure Ruby Foo's, an Oriental fantasy for every Occidental princess who ever wanted to meet General Tso without his chicken. With incalculable assistance from interior designer David Rockwell -- channeling Auntie Mame during her mah-jongg Provincial period -- Foo's is a red-hot, polished-black-and-antique-gold duplex of such brazen, gawk-at-this elegance that its grand staircase can transform the descent of any common flower girl into a spotlight-worthy entrance to rival Eliza Doolittle's coming-out party.

Eschewing his successful recipe for fish shtick (Hanson also owns the Atlantic, Ocean, and Blue Water Grills), he and chef Junnajet Hurapan have come up with a true Sino of the times. But can an updated Chinese menu with pan-Asian inclusivity charm this crowd of wonton wantons? Put it this way: If the rows of giant back-lit mah-jongg tiles don't get them, the vibrant black-bean sauce on the delicious baby-back ribs will.

Warn Mom beforehand about the absence of lobster sauce, but don't worry, she'll adjust. A really tasty (and really messy) wok-steamed lobster in ginger and scallions will easily distract her, as will lightly broiled, moist chunks of cod in barely sweetened miso; tearingly soft, clay-pot-cooked masaman lamb in a smoky tamarind curry; and a hot-and-sour lemongrass soup that'll thaw winter's late wrath. But unless you want to hear a nostalgic ode to orange beef, steer her clear of the Singapore noodles -- so despairing of pork and shrimp that we had to declare them both MIA -- and avoid the five-ingredient-short seven-flavor beef satay.

Dependably overloaded sushi platters of glistening eel, tuna, yellowtail, and slithery-in-a-tantalizing-Angelina Jolie-kind-of-way sea urchin have become Hanson's trademark. But if you find ordering a hand roll in a Chinese-themed restaurant as disorienting as watching an almond-eyed Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon, there's steamed halibut in a lovely broth of kaffir lime leaves floating in ginger and cilantro, eggplant intriguingly perfumed by a contrasting Thai basil, and some truly jumbo shrimp wonderfully benefiting from another appearance of those black beans. Crispy duck is all that, but not much more; curried chicken pot stickers have a weird aftertaste, as if white wine got spiked with brass polish; and the sweet-potato and Chinese-broccoli dumplings are two wallflowers on their first and only dance. As for pork steamed buns, they're like gefilte fish -- if they don't trigger something warmly familial in your memory bank, get the first bite down and move on.

Ruby Foo's is cheongsam-shiny with glowing theatricality, but there are three puzzlements that Buddha Hanson should consider:

1. No matter how clever the apple spring roll, bright the raspberry parfait, dark and richly inappropriate the chocolate mousse, or expertly authentic the Duncan Hines-ish chocolate cake (ah, that memory bank again), the sole reason any child ever agreed to swallow Chinese vegetables was to get that scoop of vanilla or chocolate with the bits of ice in it. None of the three above, nor even a labor-intensive, laboriously coy sushified ice-cream platter, can come close to that chilly thrill.

2. While Foo's staff knows its menu thoroughly and brings food to the table with the speed of Hong Kong's new airport bullet train, there's serious derailment when it comes to clearing. They don't come, and when they do, it's obvious no staff meeting ever began with fifteen minutes of Stacking 101.

3. Do the math: A fourteen-karat paint job, a sweepingly curved descent, huge chandeliers, jumbo prawns, waves of West Siders getting back in touch with their untouched roots. Am I the only one who sees a gold-mine catering hall? No matter how lucrative the restaurant business, just tally up the caterer-of-the-moment's weekly take and it will crack your abacus. How long before Hanson hears those carpeted steps screaming for a parade of Vera Wang duchesse satin? West Siders, you'd better enjoy Ruby Foo's while you can. One day you may call for a table for two and find out you've been shut out by the Garfein wedding. If that happens, at least try to wangle an invitation.

Ruby Foo's Dim Sum and Sushi Palace, 2182 Broadway, at 77th Street (724-6700). Lunch, Monday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; brunch, Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner, Sunday to Thursday 5:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., Friday and Saturday till 1 a.m. Appetizers, $4.95 to $7.95; entrees, $9.50 to $19.95. All major credit cards.


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