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Restaurants | THE REVIEW

Still reigning in Monterey Park

Ocean Star remains the ultimate Hong Kong seafood restaurant, and it's at its best when you know how to work the room.

August 20, 2003|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

In Monterey Park, the game is to be the first to discover a new restaurant, either a great hole-in-the-wall dumpling or noodle shop or the latest, greatest Cantonese seafood restaurant. In the frenzy, it's easy to sometimes forget about Ocean Star and its consistently excellent Cantonese cooking.

This Monterey Park dowager has been around forever, occupying the top floor of a mall filled with trendy hairdressers and, now, a Starbucks where kids text message back and forth or chat on cellphones glued to their ears.

Ocean Star really feels like a big Hong Kong restaurant. The main dining room is the size of a football field, lighted by dazzling, bright chandeliers and cooled to a chilly temperature that requires a sweater, even in summer. From the sea of big round tables covered with dishes comes the scent of garlic and coriander and the happy unselfconscious buzz of people absorbed in eating. Toddlers reach with their chopsticks. A grandmother quiets a fussy baby as a waiter shows off live fish in a plastic bucket for a diner's inspection. The only thing missing is the percussive clack from hidden back rooms of mah-jongg tiles slapped down on tables.

The place is so big the manager and his captains use walkie-talkies to communicate when things get busy, and that's almost always. Waiters look smart in crisp white shirts worn with red bow ties and black jackets. The service runs like a well-coordinated military operation. When a table needs clearing, the owner or manager will pitch in to help.

Next? They've got it down to such a science, your wait is never very long. Still it's best to reserve a table, and allow some time to find a parking space in the packed, small parking lot on a weekend evening.

I've long since learned the best way to eat at Ocean Star is to never even look at the menu. There are several ways to get the best possible meal. If you're new to the restaurant, find a manager or waiter who speaks English if you don't speak Cantonese and ask about what's fresh that day. It's a Cantonese seafood restaurant -- emphasis on the seafood -- so this is not necessarily the place to order a lot of meat or spicy dishes.

Cantonese cuisine is very pure in its flavors. You want to stick with fish and seafood with the occasional pork or squab accent.

A shrimp primer

You can't beat the live shrimp, boiled whole with their delicious sticky red roe still clinging to their bellies. Wait till they're just cool enough to peel off the heads and shells. The kitchen provides a dipping sauce, but the shrimp are so flavorful, they're almost better without. They're big (two or three per person is usually sufficient), and priced by the pound. Everybody wants them, so it's wise to reserve a couple of pounds when you make your reservation.

Dishes I'd recommend that don't have to be ordered ahead include live whole rock cod steamed with ginger and scallions in light soy broth and Dungeness crab in a black bean and chile pepper sauce. Squab, either deep-fried or braised in soy sauce, is another sure bet. You can never go wrong with pea shoots or asparagus sauteed crisp in short lengths with oyster sauce either.

The best ordering suggestions come from the restaurant's owner, Peter Lee. His manner is so energetic and straightforward that I thought he was a manager until I caught a glimpse of him a few days ago on Wolfgang Puck's Food Network show, taking Puck on a tour of Ocean Star's kitchen. If you show an interest, he'll gladly help you design a menu for the whole table, and if he has a moment, he will really put some thought into the choices and offer alternatives. He's also savvy enough to put the brake on when he thinks you're getting too greedy and ordering too much, which I appreciate. If you come often enough, he'll remember what you ordered the last time and try to introduce a special new dish with each visit.

On my last visit, it was an opulent quail soup that takes four or five hours to make. It featured whole quails fished up out of a marvelously rich, caramel-colored broth. When we cut into the birds with chopsticks, out came a stuffing of what looked like glass noodles. It was actually transparent needles of shark's fin (and because of this the cost is $34 per person). Perhaps you have to be Chinese to truly appreciate this delicacy, but the surprise of this dish was how much we all appreciated it as a study in textures.

Another time Lee decided we should have scallops. Almost as big as a fist, they were deep-fried to a crunch on the outside, firm and meaty within. Instead of the lobster with X.O. sauce that I usually order, this time we tried, at his suggestion, lobster Sichuan-style in a sweet-and-sour, tomato-based sauce laced with slices of red pepper and crowned with fistfuls of cilantro. Sticky and delicious, it's served with endless towels.

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