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Seafood Rules in the Exhilarating Land of Sam

November 17, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition.

A month ago we visited the world of Sam . . . Sam Woo Barbecue, that is--a Chinese restaurant in Irvine that is packing in everyone from locals to visiting UCI professors. Now it's time to go next door, to the more formal--and amazingly, even more frenetic--Sam Woo Restaurant, where seafood is king.

On Saturday nights, Sam Woo is a madhouse. Enter the dining room through the crowded bar, and you'll probably bump into a waiter presenting a live lobster, wriggling inside a plastic bag, to a table of amazed guests. The back of the dining room has been reserved for aquariums, as crowded as the dining room itself but with channel cod, lobster, conch and other live seafoods.

The dining room is disarmingly unadorned, a long, white-ceilinged room dominated by center columns housing back-lit glass showcases. Inside are Chinese objets d'art in pottery and cloisonne. The four Chinese characters that spell Sam Woo Restaurant are displayed on a side wall in black-on-white brush strokes.

The Sam Woo chain started in Monterey Park and has expanded to more than 13 locations. It has done so by using a simple Cantonese formula: the freshest ingredients possible, cooked in an utterly simple manner.

There are two menus: the regular, 173-item menu, which is seafoods from No. 1 all the way up to No. 98, and a smaller, gold-colored menu card. The latter lists 33 Chinese delicacies, and don't overlook it. It contains some of the best dishes.

A good starting point for a Chinese feast might be the poetically named peacock blossom platter, an artfully arranged mound of superb meats from Sam Woo Barbecue next door. Of course, you'll have to sift through the landlubber protein on this platter if you want get to the seafoods. Things like five-spice roast duck, roast suckling pig and sweet-edged strips of barbecued pork might very well catch your eye before you get to the chewy, orange-tinted cuttlefish, a cousin of squid.

After the barbecue, I suggest a wonderful appetizer called vegetable roll. You'll have to ask your waiter for it, because it is not listed on either menu. The people of Shanghai call this dish mock goose because of the skin-like sheet of dried bean curd that holds it together--it's long, white and wrinkled, like a goose neck. The filling is julienne bamboo and carrot, laced with bits of tree ear and black mushroom. This is one of the glories of Chinese vegetarian cooking.

Now you might want to try a soup, such as the tangy Westlake beef soup, the simple and satisfying winter melon soup or, from the gold menu, the exhilarating steamed chicken and ginseng soup. This last could be called Jewish penicillin with an added kick: a steaming caldron of rich chicken broth containing chicken meat, a few chives and some slices of the bittersweet ginseng root, said to heat the body and infuse it with bright yang energy.

Minced shrimp with lettuce, also from the gold menu, makes a fine intermediate course that will tantalize your appetite without overwhelming it. The dish is a twist on the better-known lettuce-wrapped squab (or chicken), where the minced meat, smeared with plum sauce, is served in lettuce leaf cups. It provides an intriguing textural contrast of crisp water chestnuts, plump pine nuts, chopped-up shrimp and stringy, full-flavored bamboo. The idea is to pick it up and eat it like a burrito (good luck).

On to the real meat and potatoes of this restaurant . . . or should we say, fish and vegetables. Live lobster is a bargain at only $8.75 a pound, though I'd go for more exotic seafoods, perhaps the tender sauteed conch with green onion, or even the restaurant's exemplary spicy salted squid.

Anyone not on a budget should consider the incredible channel cod, a red-skinned beauty of a fish, steamed and sprinkled with a flurry of green onion and ginger. Taste this delicate, sweet-fleshed fish and you'll wonder why anyone would even consider cooking fresh fish any other way than steaming. It's a big ticket item--$47.90 for a four-pound fish--but exemplifies how good Chinese cooking can be.

Another great dish is hearts of baby bok choy, sauteed simply with garlic and oil. The vegetable, with its tiny green center leaves, is astonishing.

Not everything works on this level. The vaunted bamboo pith, the spongy center portion of a bamboo shoot, absorbs too much oil when cooking and is upstaged by the humble mustard greens it is served with. Cross ribs with orange sauce turns out to be a sugary mess, good meat ruined by a sticky, insipid sauce. The baked clams with mint have an oddly medicinal taste, and the house braised duck is greasy.

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