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RESTAURANTS : Claws Celebre : Lobster to Die for and Other Good Stuff, at Newport Seafood

August 10, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition.

"Oh no, not lobster again," I used to tell my mother. Lobster is one of America's favorite luxury foods, but when I was growing up in New England, lobstermen often trapped so many they gave away the leftovers.

In Santa Ana, I paid for my lobster at Newport Seafood, and wow, was it worth it. This modest Vietnamese/Cantonese restaurant, under new ownership, makes the best lobster dish I have eaten in California. Come to think of it, I'm not sure it doesn't beat any Down East lobster as well.

How good is it? Well, my Hong Kong-born friends who live in Monterey Park, a town loaded with serious Chinese restaurants, drive down just to eat lobster here.

Walk into this always crowded establishment and you'll immediately notice that the crustacean population greatly outnumbers the diners, thanks to huge lobster and crab tanks dominating the dining room.

Newport Seafood is far from elegant, but there are linens on the tables during the evening, a rarity for Little Saigon. You should also know that the restaurant serves live Maine lobster (the waiter calls it "Boston lobster") at $9.99 a pound. A four-pound lobster, plucked squiggling from the tank, will sate around five hungry people.

The menu lists lobster prepared various ways: steamed, with black-bean sauce, with ginger and green onion or with spiced salt and pepper. Don't swallow the bait. Pass up all those options and ask for the masterful house special lobster, fried in butter with salt, green onion, crushed red pepper and a sauce whose secret Jeannie Chan, the new owner, is reluctant to reveal.

The lobster arrives cut up and glistening on a large platter, flecked with red pepper, awash with bits of fried lobster coral and crisp green onion. The lobster meat falls away from the shell in huge chunks with no more than a slight prodding from chopstick or fork.

Underneath there is a treasure chest of flavor: more lobster coral sticking to the shell, a tasty sauce to dribble on your rice, intensely golden chunks of lobster meat. I'll never diss lobster again.

Most of the cooking is perfectly fine at Newport Seafood, although nothing comes close to the lobster.

The second-best dish is bo luc lac , which the waiters refer to as "French beef." You'll notice most of the locals have ordered it. This is a sizzling platter of tender beef chunks, beautifully browned and coated with a piquant garlic sauce. It's nothing a Frenchman would recognize, but it is definitely something he could love. The beef is crowned with onions and sliced tomato. With steamed rice, it makes a complete meal.

Then there is crab.

Many Vietnamese customers like their crab in a thick curry sauce, which is one way to have it here. I prefer a Cantonese-inspired black-bean sauce because the salty fermented soy beans serve as a natural complement to the silky sweetness of crab. The kitchen throws in cutup bell pepper and onion, and the result is one of the more satisfying dishes in the entire Chinese repertoire.

The usual South China Sea dishes are also available: scallops, abalone, sea cucumber, elephant clam. Whole tilapia and catfish are best steamed with ginger and green onion. Whole shrimp baked in the shell with spicy salt are tasty, though excessively oily. Chewy clams and mussels are served in the shells with a spicy sauce.

One of the best South Chinese vegetables, sauteed pea shoots, is on the menu. Another good one, ong choy (literally, hollow vegetable), is not, but it's often available. I like Newport's ong choy because the vegetable is cooked in a mildly fermented bean sauce, but that might be an acquired taste.

You could begin a meal with one of the restaurant's filling soups. The distinctively Vietnamese crab meat and asparagus soup is thick and pasty, but flavorful.

Shrimp hot-and-sour soup, also Vietnamese, is nothing like the northern Chinese hot and sour, but rather a clear broth flavored with pineapple and tomato. The light, pungent seaweed fish-ball soup is from Chiu Chow, the part of Canton province from which most of Vietnam's Chinese community emigrated.

This soup is not the only clue that Chinese from Vietnam own Newport Seafood. The house-special rice noodles come with squid, shrimp and pieces of processed pork that the Vietnamese call pate , a mortadella-like cold cut that would make a Parisian butcher shudder.

For more evidence of Vietnam, look in the back cooler. It's filled with a slew of surrealistic multicolored Vietnamese desserts jiggling in their plastic cups.

This is a seafood restaurant, so it's not strange that the poultry dishes are unimpressive. Steamed duck Chiu Chow style is bland and tough, while roast squab isn't quite as fresh-tasting, or as reasonably priced, as in many of the Vietnamese establishments down the street.

Take away the lobster and beef, and Newport Seafood is just one more good Cantonese-style restaurant on this street. But then, minus the staff and quill, Mozart could have ended up a coach repairman, occasionally known to hum a catchy tune.

Newport Seafood is moderate to expensive. Soups are $6.25 to $65. Vegetables are $5.25 to $6.50. Main dishes are $6.75 to $20.95. Live seafoods are sold by the pound, according to prices dictated by season.

* NEWPORT SEAFOOD

* 4411 W. 1st St., Santa Ana.

* (714) 531-5146.

* Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

* Cash only.

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