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CHEAP EATS | RICE VALLEY

Keeping things on the light side

At a glance you'll notice that someone has poured money into this stylish and airy dining room. And after a dish or two, you'll see that the Chinese menu has been lightened and updated. Rice Valley doesn't have a single canned vegetable in any dish. So the crunch that you think might be chopped water chestnuts is, in fact, jicama. And baby canned corn is nowhere in sight. In its place is fresh corn, cut to the same short length as the canned version.

Rice Valley, which opened just more than a month ago, is owned by Kent Chen, who had two other popular restaurants in Newton. The first was Ru Yee in Nonantum, which had been going strong for 20 years, but Chen closed it last weekend so the chef could devote all his time to the new venture. Twelve years ago, Chen opened Shing Yee in West Newton.

When he saw that the 40-year-old Golden Star in Newtonville was getting a little weather-beaten, he went to the owner to see if he would sell. "We were not successful," says Chen. But after a few tries, Chen did succeed in buying the Washington Street storefront. A construction crew removed everything except the walls, he says: "Even the ceiling is new." The renovation took seven months, and now a bar and dining room seat 98. Chen's brother, Zhong, is the chef. Their sister Yan Chen is in the front of the house, as is a cousin, Chung Ng. Brother-in-law Wei Zhong is in the kitchen.

They decided to price the menu "for a family atmosphere," says Kent Chen, to impose the ban on canned foods, to offer a different kind of table service -- waiters wrap your moo-shi rolls for you and present them on a platter -- to steam instead of stir-fry when possible, and to use the freshest oil for frying.

That moo-shi pork ($8.95) has the clean flavors of its cabbage, mushrooms, pork, and eggs. The filling is not too wet and doesn't have a trace of oil. This unadorned quality continues with the rest of the menu. Shu mai ($5.95) aren't the classic pot stickers we're expecting. These are sweet, shrimp-filled dumplings that are very tiny, about two bites each; Chen buys them frozen from a Japanese supplier.

A healthy choice like steamed bean curd ($7.95) is so flavorful you have to wonder if there's more to it than just silky, creamy tofu with scallions and ginger. In fact, says Chen, after the bean curd is steamed, a little hot oil is drizzled on top to bring out the flavor. A variation comes with shrimp ($10.95). Selections labeled "On the lighter side" include a platter of bright green broccoli and green beans ($8.50) that are plain and snappy crisp.

Sizzling Mongolian beef ($11.95), made with sirloin steak and stir-fried with carrots and pea pods, is a mildly hot dish that's hard to keep your chopsticks out of. Only mango scallops ($12.95) don't hit the mark; they're too sweet and the orange fruit and its slightly gluey sauce dominate the seafood.

We move them aside to make room for salt-and-pepper prawns ($13.95), whose deep-fried batter tastes like tempura. When flavors of the sea mingle with more salt and chili peppers, along with an exceptional coating, you get several diners pressing fingers into the crumbs to get the last bits.

Like all good Chinese restaurants, you can take your kids and your parents to Rice Valley, and there's something for everyone. You can also take your uncle with high cholesterol. But sit him near the steamed dishes and away from those incredible prawns.

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