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IT'S IN THE STARS : The Only Way to Find Fresher Seafood Is to Catch It Yourself.

November 13, 1994|S. Irene Virbila

Reporting back from Barcelona, my friend Amparo had me groaning on the phone as she described what she'd eaten the night before: fat, salt-cured anchovies, rice stained black with tiny cuttlefish, sweet-fleshed langoustines smeared with aioli, and giant Costa Brava shrimp, cooked in seawater and immediately plunged into ice to stop the cooking. Hungry for the taste of those shrimp, but unable to jump on the next flight for Spain, I headed for Ocean Star Restaurant in Monterey Park to feast on fresh (and I mean fresh) seafood. Actually, there are two Ocean Stars: the mega Hong Kong-style dim sum and banquet palace on Atlantic Boulevard and the much smaller original place a couple of blocks away, where the cooking is more home-style. And where, for just $20 a pound, you can eat your fill of superb steamed shrimp. And for every pound of shrimp you buy, you get one pound free.

At the more modest Ocean Star, incense smudges the air just outside the kitchen door. In the far corner, vague shapes swim in the aquariums. We already know what we want: live shrimp and a live whole fish, both simply steamed. Our waiter shakes his head regretfully. He has neither. But he has fish arriving in about an hour. "Some squid first? Duck tongues?" he asks. We'll try it. He's back in a few minutes with a platter that's half spicy squid, half deep-fried duck tongues, both presented with a dipping sauce of soy, chiles and slivered scallions. Tender, pale gold squid tantalizes with its heat. We soon have a small pile of delicate spade-shaped bones from the tongues piled on our plates, but we can't finish. This is a dish that's more about texture than taste.

Just as the waiter is ladling out bowls of the special baby chicken soup, a truck backs close to the entrance, and he rushes to help unload live fish and shrimp from big tanks.

As we finish the last spoonfuls of the rich chicken stock laced with bits of ruddy ham, he comes back to the table with two live black rock cod in a net. Yes, we'd like these fellows steamed with ginger and scallions. Then he's back again, this time waving two live lobsters. We order one as sashimi, the other stir-fried in the shell. And a steamed chicken.

When the huge platter of shrimp arrives, every one of the shellfish is loaded with roe. We tear off the heads and pull away the shells, biting into the sticky red roe. The shrimp is so sweet, so enticing in its variations of texture and flavor that the dipping sauce is almost superfluous. That's the genius of Cantonese cooking: to present a product so fresh, you can taste every nuance. Savoring each shrimp, I am a happy woman.

Next time, however, I'll pass on the lobster sashimi; the raw shellfish just isn't that interesting. But lobster cut into large pieces and stir-fried with ginger and green scallions is a lavish contrast to the shrimp. The steamed chicken is wonderful, too, the velvety plain chicken played against coins of salty Chinese ham, mushrooms and slightly bitter Chinese broccoli.

We eagerly take our chopsticks to the steamed black cod, presented whole, its flesh custardy near the bone, showered with scallions and ginger and served in light soy sauce. It is perfect in its understated simplicity.

This is an experience that can't be repeated too soon. A couple of weeks later, we round up a few eager eaters for another expedition. This time we try the bigger Ocean Star because it's running a special: for every pound of live shrimp ($18), one squab. The place is huge, a sea of tables where eight, 10, 12 are seated, the Lazy Susans weighed down with every manner of seafood. It's loud and chaotic, but there's something very comforting about a space filled with so many people intent on eating. A Chinese American friend's children, 5 and 10, pull out their homework as we wait for our first dishes: a platter of jellyfish and roasted pig.

I love the West Lake soup of hand-minced beef, scallions, cilantro and egg whites stirred into a heady cornstarch-thickened

stock. We snatch up the spicy squid bright with slivered red chile. We have the live shrimp again, of course, and scallops in the shell with black beans.

We order too much food: golden ping-pong balls of hand-chopped shrimp; pale green winter melon stuffed with dried shrimp, shredded dried scallops and black mushrooms in a rich sauce; a seasonal assorted seafood dish from Zhongshan with chopped asparagus, squid, shrimp and mushrooms, scattered with crunchy pickled radish and peanuts. All good--but none of it is as soul satisfying as the plain, steamed seafood. I could eat at the little Ocean Star just about once a week.

Ocean Star Restaurant: 112 N. Chandler Ave., (818) 300-8446 (dinner only), and 145 N. Atlantic Blvd., (818) 308-2128, both in Monterey Park. Parking lot. Smoking permitted at both locations. Dinner for two, food only, $21-$150.

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