Allen Pierleoni / apierleoni@sacbee.com

Roasted duck with laughing buns at Roseville Gourmet.

Counter Culture: Roseville Gourmet lends a Chinese touch to California cuisine

Published: Friday, Jun. 22, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 35TICKET

You wouldn't guess it by the name, but the Roseville Gourmet is a Chinese restaurant. Its slogan is "California and Chinese cuisine," but the dividing line between the two isn't all that apparent. Are avocado and nut fried rice California-centric?

Still, you'll find plenty of authentic, MSG-free, fairly priced and well-sauced dishes assembled from fresh ingredients, with a dash of imagination.

Veteran restaurateurs Emily and Henry Wong have operated Roseville Gourmet for 24 years, building an enthusiastic clientele of regulars. It seemed like everyone in the dining room knew everyone else during our most recent visit.

The menu shows lunch specials, and lunch and dinner combinations such as crisp green beans and tender chicken, with soup, egg roll and fried rice, $7.95; and Mongolian beef with fried prawns, foil-wrapped chicken, chicken wing, fried rice and soup, $11.75.

Dozens of dinner items are listed under the usual headings – chow mein and rice, chicken, beef, pork, seafood and vegetables, some of it "hot and spicy."

Our attention was drawn to the 16-item "California Entrees," from which we did most of our ordering.

As we waited, one of the lunch pals shared some of her history. Bernice Hagen is so outgoing that it seems she either knows or knew ... well, everybody in town. She is certainly well-qualified to contribute to this column. For one thing, she was a member of Sacramento magazine's former Dining Divas team of restaurant reviewers. For another, she's a fearless diner: "I order chicken and duck feet at dim sum."

Cooking was her passion early on.

"I wanted to travel and educate myself, so I took cooking classes in Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, France, Spain, Italy, Mexico and Brazil," she said, as plates began arriving at our table. "I attended Le Cordon Bleu school in Paris and went to Italy with Biba Caggiano, who was teaching American women there how to cook Italian food. I was her pot scrubber."

In Sacramento, Bernice was a regular at William Glen's cooking school at Town & Country Village. "I opened La Bernice cooking school in 1978 only because (late William Glen owner) Bill Snyder closed his," she said, as we passed around a plate of crisp though standard-issue brandy-fried chicken.

"I closed the school in 1989, then opened Bernice's Cookery (restaurant, which closed in 1998). It was a neighborhood place, people walked there. Randall Selland (owner of Ella and The Kitchen) was my sous chef."

Arriving next was cold, spicy cabbage (tastier and less piquant than Korean kimchi) and a plate of marvelous cold skin-on chicken covered in a "relish" of ginger, garlic and green onion (a top dish). Both of those are off-menu items. Emily Wong advised calling ahead for them "or anything you want us to make special."

Bernice is a certified scuba diver ("And a quick shopper") who has bungee-jumped and skydived. She skis every winter and is a relentless hiker. What about kitchen time these days?

"Not so much right now. I'm practicing to be a professional eater," she joked, "but I've been collecting a lot of recipes and can't wait to try them on somebody."

Emily Wong arrived again, carrying dish after dish. "Emily's noodles" was a heaped plate of chewy rice noodles wokked with snow peas, chicken, cabbage, celery and onion.

"I like the sauce and the spicing," one lunch pal said.

"It's one of those dishes that grows on you," added another.

Roasted duck in sweet and tangy plum-orange sauce was dark and delicious, the tender slices of meat perfectly partnered with the seasoned skin.

Thick, succulent rounds of eggplant (crisp skin, soft middle) were covered in scallops and shrimp, with a sauce that carried a nice touch of background heat. Salt-and-pepper prawns and calamari quickly vanished.

One dish new to us was orange peel-seasoned pork wontons, lightly deep-fried and then cooked in a "stew" of tomato, egg and onion, and then sauced.

The plates were empty by meal's end, so no leftovers.

One more question for Bernice as we prepared to leave: Any words of wisdom?

"Yes," she said, picking up a fork and brandishing it for emphasis. "Whenever you come to a fork in the road, take it."

ROSEVILLE GOURMET

Where: 107 S. Harding Blvd., Roseville

Hours: Lunch is 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; dinner is 4:30-9 p.m. daily.

Food: 3 1/2 stars

Ambience: 2 stars

How much: $-$$

Information: (916) 784-8008

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