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DAVID NELSON / ON RESTAURANTS

Hungry Diners Like to Take Huge Dinner Boats to Japan

February 21, 1991|DAVID NELSON

If your ship comes in and you happen to like Japanese food, you might consider investing a bit of your good fortune in one of the massive "boat" dinners served, for a minimum of two diners, at Oceanside's long-running Da Te.

These boats--portable buffets arranged in small-scale rowboats--are popular at Japanese houses in the upper tier of North County communities, and Da Te offers four of them. They range in size from the relatively modest Oceanside Boat Dinner, which bears a fair cargo of offerings, to the Treasure Boat, which includes samples of virtually every menu item and should challenge almost every appetite.

The nearly outrageous portions are in keeping with the evident house philosophy of serving far more than is customary at most Japanese restaurants; it would not be at all surprising if this predilection were inspired by local realities and reflected appetites honed by exercises on Camp Pendleton's many training fields.

At their most generous, the boat dinners include chicken breasts and immense New York sirloins burnished with teriyaki sauce, lavish arrangements of shrimp and vegetable tempura, salads, sushi, sashimi, lobster, wedges of melon and other fruit. All in all, there is sufficient food to keep a pair of diners occupied for quite some time, and perhaps enough to wear the blunt ends of new chopsticks down to sharp points.

For all the extravagance Da Te invests in special dinners, the house specialties remain sushi and tempura. These dishes, distinctly dissimilar in their styles of preparation, can appear agreeably in the same meal or can successfully stand alone.

Tempura appears repeatedly through the listings of 50 or so combination dinners, but the best opportunity for sushi naturally is at the sushi bar, where all the usuals and a number of house specials are prepared fresh to order by a pair of energetic, enthusiastic chefs who seem to have an excellent understanding of the niceties of this unique food.

The menu's appetizer section does mention an "assorted sushi" plate, and this is a basic but good starter course for both novices and aficionados. It includes a trio of nigiri, or tightly rolled packages of sweet-vinegar-seasoned rice and raw blue tuna wrapped in seaweed, as well as additional bundles of rice topped with raw yellowtail and sweet, beguilingly tender and delicious octopus.

Other starter choices include fried oysters, an occasionally available preparation of grilled beef wrapped around green beans, assorted tempura and teriyaki, and a disappointing version of sesame chicken that, when recently sampled, was soggy, gooey and devoid of sesame flavor.

The combination dinners, which top out at a price of $13.95, include bowls of the miso (fermented soybean paste) soup and sunomono (sweet, pungent, freshly pickled cucumber slices) that typically are openings salvos of a Japanese meal.

These plates variously combine chicken and-or beef teriyaki, sukiyaki, tempura, breaded pork cutlet and sashimi and-or sushi, and are just as enormously sized as the aforementioned boats.

As garnishes, Da Te adds a bowl of sticky rice and a simple green salad, dressed either with all-American Thousand Island or with a much more distinctive and distinctly Japanese soy sauce-based dressing of subtle and refreshing flavor.

The entrees sampled included an immense platter of chicken teriyaki, breaded pork cutlet with a sweet, sticky sauce, and shrimp and vegetable tempura; the cooking was adequate except in the case of the tempura, which was more delicate than the norm.

A second combination paired a large plate of tempura and salad with a sizzling iron plaque filled with beef sukiyaki; this preparation was heavy on the noodles but rather shy on the vegetables and meat, and, while flavorful enough, was not nearly as good as that served at leading Japanese establishments.

The restaurant is notably Japanese in its decor and seems almost forested with hanging paper lanterns, which are augmented by red parasols and kites painted with masked faces from the country's classic opera.

An undeniably enjoyable feature is the ceremony with which guests are ushered into the dining room: As each party is admitted, the hostess beats a drum. This gives fair warning to the servers and the sushi chefs that fresh, potentially huge appetites are on the way.

Da Te

2415 Vista Way, Oceanside

Calls: 721-0843

Hours: Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner nightly

Cost: Plates $8.95 to $18.95; dinner for two, including a Japanese beer each, tax and tip, about $30 to $60.

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