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Seafood Cove: You'll Eat Swimmingly

July 29, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

A lot of my friends are down on Chinese food, and who can blame them? The shopping mall Chinese restaurants to which they're accustomed serve dreary dishes like orange-flavored chicken in heavy cornstarch batter and canned vegetables that have been wokked around in cottonseed oil.

Garden Grove's Seafood Cove is good enough to dispel that image in a hurry. Of course, it does have image problems of its own. It's a big, windowless building that looks sort of like a bunker, complete with security cameras stationed by the front door. This would seem to be a drawback for a place situated right across the street from the well-known Seafood Paradise.

But at peak hours, Chinese diners regularly line up for tables at Seafood Cove and wait patiently for someone to blare out a table number. Despite the inauspicious exterior, it's a bright, busy place full of red wallpaper and live fish tanks and, most of the time, hungry families.

When a Chinese restaurant is intended primarily for Westerners, you rarely find anything exotic on the menu, or even on the premises. (Some Westernized Chinese restaurants are actually afraid to serve the humble squid.) But restaurants geared to a Chinese clientele, like Seafood Cove, pull no punches with their cuisine. The atmosphere is no-nonsense ("Turn on the lights and eat," as one Chinese friend describes it), the food primal. Much of what you eat here is live seafood literally plucked from an aquarium and brought squiggling and wriggling to the kitchen, as you'd find in the Chinese neighborhoods of Monterey Park or Alhambra.

Seafood Cove's menu boasts a whopping 257 dishes. Frog, quail, squab, sea cucumber, live shrimp, whole crab, red skinned fish and elephant clam are just a few of the possibilities here, and who knows what the cooks are saving for the preferred customers? What I sampled on my three visits amounts to a mere smattering of what's available.

The menu is written in four languages: English, Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian. But despite the efforts at multiculturalism, this is primarily a Cantonese restaurant, meaning that it upholds the grand traditions of Cantonese cooking: lightness, freshness, vivid color combinations.

Bring a large group--preferably around six--and start dinner with shark's fin soup or some of the terrific cold appetizers. Braised shark's fin with shredded chicken is a bargain at $32.95, a portion large enough for six lucky foodies to share. This version is filled with gelatinous pieces of shark's fin and lots of perfunctory thin strips of chicken. When you lift a spoon to your lips, the senses reel from a smoky, magically sweet sensation, the likes of which cannot be duplicated by any other food I know of.

Pre-salted duck is the star among a strong list of cold appetizers. Its slightly pinkish, sweet smoky meat is like good Virginia ham, covered by a soft and surprisingly not-too-fatty skin. Think of five-spice beef as a licorice-flavored corned beef--grainy, thinly sliced and infused with the perfumes of exotic star anise. Smoked fish is crisp, slightly blackened and a bit sweet (too sweet, perhaps), with soft tiny bones to crunch up when you bite in. Jellyfish comes tangled up in a mound, enriched by the presence of ginger and sesame oil.

Tell the waiter you want things from the fish tank, and about the time you finish the cold plate, he'll approach the table with a live catch. Pray that it is rock cod (pass on the insipid, scrawny tilapia), the best fish for steaming Chiu Chow-style with minced pork, garlic and fresh ginger, or live jumbo shrimp ($14.95 per pound) Thai-style, with fresh mint and grated chili.

I've had wonderful salt-and-pepper baked whole crab here, cracked and ready to eat for a ridiculously low $6.99, and lobster meat sauteed with ginger and scallion for less than $10. Try elephant clam (also known as geoduck) thinly sliced and sauteed with mint. It has a penetrating freshness that reminds you of salt sea air.

Delicious, if unremarkable, standbys include clams in black bean sauce, bean curd family style and oyster with ginger and scallion. The clams are large and flecked with red pepper and black soy beans, the tofu is rich and saucy. The oysters may be prepared with too much sugar. Bits of caramelized scallion and ginger stick to each one like molasses.

Our one excursion into real exotica was fried crispy quail, tasty enough for a frozen bird but hardly memorable. (At $2.95 apiece, however, who cares?) There are plenty of great vegetable dishes, such as unctuous fried eggplant with minced pork and mint, the increasingly popular (and increasingly expensive) pea shoots piled up in a molehill, and spicy Hunan-style dry sauteed string beans.

A spate of good noodle and rice dishes is available to fill out any meal at Seafood Cove. Dry fried chow fun turns out to be a huge pile of mouthwatering rice noodles cooked with a little chili and a lot of beef. Crab meat and mint noodle is a hybrid dish that appeals to Chinese from Vietnam and, well, practically anyone else who likes to eat. The noodles are soft lo mein and there is a generous helping of snow-white crab meat on top.

As for the service here, in a word I'd call it bemused. Show up ordering all these dishes, and it is almost a cliche that the waiters will be unsure about whether you really want them. Tell them not to worry.

Seafood Cove is moderately priced. Dishes range from $3.50 for appetizers to $35 for specialty items, with live seafoods starting at around $10.

*SEAFOOD COVE

* 8547 Westminster Blvd., Garden Grove.

* (714) 895-7964.

* Open daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

* Master Card and Visa accepted.

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