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Omnidextrous O'mei

Robert Scheer

Any Portal in a Storm: Owner/chef Roger Grigsby and chef Karl Cook oversee the sublime creations O'mei conjours from Grigsby's yearly archeological treks to the kitchens of the Far East.

The current menu at the laureled Westside Sichuan restaurant features an all-star team of delicious Chinese provincial specialties

By Christina Waters

Sooner or later, the savvy visitor makes a stop at O'mei, the consistent star of Chinese country-style cuisine located in an unlikely strip mall on the western edge of town. They come to admire the sudden transformation from plain concrete exterior to polished granite table tops, sophisticated pin spotlighting, walls filled with artwork and that gigantic floral bombardment at the front entrance. But they stay for the same reason we all do--the food.

Armed with a few classics and a huge array of not-so-classic dishes from the far-flung corners of China and Taiwan, the restaurant defies easy description. So we just make sure no one leaves town without at least one serious O'mei feast.

Last week, seated at one of those terrific round tables, a few of us helped send an ace coworker off to his next gig at graduate school with a dazzling array of O'mei's finest, and to lubricate the proceedings we called for bottles of Red Hook ESB, Tsing Tao ($3 each) and Morgan Chardonnay 1994 ($20). When you've dined often at a restaurant over the years, it's hard to be freshly impressed, but this evening, every dish found its perfect pitch.

The celebrated "little dishes" were brandished--those pre-appetizer appetizers that are part of O'mei's charm. We spun the tabletop around to sample from fat clusters of sticky-sweet cashews toasted with sesame seeds ($2.95), and to admire the firepower of grated vinegary carrots strewn with wicked little hot chiles ($1.95). Two orders of my favorite incendiary seaweed dish ($2.50) disappeared as newcomers from the Midwest oohed and aahed over what they'd missed by not being raised in Santa Cruz. Let's face it, these opening acts give everybody something to do--and eat--while dinner is being prepared.

Next came two bowls of what I consider the de rigueur house appetizer--red oil dumplings. The interior filling of minced, almost pureed, pork and spiced vegetables was deftly enfolded in tender rice-flour noodles, steamed to quivering succulence and then slathered in that addictively hot chili oil and soy sauce ($7.50 for 10). The combination of softness and spiciness is the heart of what O'mei does best--unexpected, brilliant contrasts. The table glowed collectively.

The most difficult part of the meal involved waiting semi-patiently while someone on the opposite side of the circle scooped up his or her share of the Mala corn & pine-nut shrimp ($9.50), a signature dish of minced shrimp, corn and pine nuts ignited by Sichuan peppercorns on a bed of crisp fried spinach. It was especially good that night. One of my favorites, the black pepper shrimp ($9.75) laced with caramelized sweet onions and accompanied by clouds of fresh watercress, was placed right in front of me, so I made my move quickly. This dish too was such a hit, we placed a second order.

The crisp Taiwan-style rock cod, a knockout combo of exceptionally crisp batter, a likable moist fish and a holy grail of sauces involving chili, ginger, garlic and Taiwan black vinegar was the best it's ever been ($10.50).

We also tried a few dishes we don't usually order, like a satiny Cui Pi orange beef ($9.95)--lean beef slices wokked with the menthol-scented Sichuan peppercorns, orange peel and chiles. It went nicely with a strange and wonderful veggie dish of smoky-scented Anaheim peppers sautéed until their skins blistered (for ease of removal) and tossed lightly with vinegar ($6.50).

From the list of inventive desserts, designed to finish what the rest of the meal had started, we shared a crème brûlée-like ginger creme custard ($4.25), a warm, old-fashioned apple crisp with vanilla ice cream ($4.50) and coconut ice cream topped with caramel sauce and toasted coconut ($3.95). Some chose tawny port ($3.50), others coffee ($1.25), and some of us simply chose to bask in the superb afterglow. So many dishes, and not a false move among them.

O'mei Sichuan Restaurant

Address: 2316 Mission St. Santa Cruz
Phone: 425-8458
Hours: Dinner nightly from 5pm; lunch Mon­Fri 11:30am­2pm
Cuisine: Provincial Chinese
Owner/Chef: Roger Grigsby
Ambiance: Casually sophisticated
Service: Skilled
Price: Moderate--very reasonable for such high-quality food
Overall: *** 1/2 Relentlessly creative menu and delivery

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the June 20-26, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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