My friend Steve will fall in love with a restaurant, a Thai noodle house, say, and go there nearly every day for lunch until the place closes or until another restaurant replaces it in his affections. At first, he'll explore the menu, but very soon, he'll settle on a handful of dishes and order them again and again.
He's the one who told me about a new Chinese restaurant on the Westside where he had 22 meals the first month it opened. Three months later, he's managed to eat at Hong Kong-style J.R. Seafood approximately 74 times. Now that's a recommendation.
Early on, every other table seemed to be there at Steve's behest. (Large Chinese family groups made up the rest of the clientele.) "I'm a friend of Steve's" became the password at the door. And when I meet Steve there for dinner the first time, he is holding court at a corner table, dispensing advice on what to order. Everyone gets the same recitation--and just what we order: deep-fried chicken wings, long beans in X.O. brandy sauce, giant pan-fried scallops. The chicken wings are fried to a crackling crisp, tender and juicy inside, with an afterflash of fiery chile. Skinny long beans, deliciously crunchy, are sauced with smoldering rough-cut homemade chile paste that includes dried, shredded scallops, salty dried shrimp and X.O. brandy. The scallops, big as a shallow tea cup, are perfectly cooked, sweet and meltingly tender.
This bright, cheerful place is one of the few restaurants on the Westside offering authentic Chinese food and not the usual Americanized restaurant fare. J.R. Seafood's chef-owner, Bing Lee, is from Hong Kong and worked in Japan before coming to Marina del Rey, where he had a small restaurant, Oriental Seafood Inn, before opening this one.
I have been back to J.R. Seafood several more times on my own. And I drop Steve's name shamelessly. Whenever I do, the manager tells me, "Oh, Steve was just here yesterday," and we laugh. While I do like the long beans and especially the sumptuous pan-fried scallops, I've found some other good dishes on the extensive, mostly Cantonese, menu: the seafood bean curd soup, a rich stock thick with silky, diced bean curd, small bits of scallops, shrimp, mushrooms and scallions; a glass bowl of sauteed pea shoots, the stems still crunchy, tasting like an intense jolt of green; velvety steamed chicken garnished with cilantro and finely slivered scallions.
J.R. Seafood, like similar Cantonese seafood restaurants in Monterey Park, features aquariums stocked with live shrimp, crab, geoduck clams and "seawater" fish such as rock cod or sheep's head. Show an interest, and the manager will be back waving a five-pound lobster or proffering a plastic bucket with a live fish flopping around in it. "You should have ordered one each," he tells us one night, as he filets the small steamed rock cod and scoops the finely shredded scallions and ginger on top, spooning the lightly perfumed soy broth over.
This guy is up for maitre d' of the year. He chats, advises on the menu, suggests dishes--and, thankfully, they're not always the most conservative. I take his advice one night and order the "four special." He counts off the ingredients on his fingers: "dried scallops, dried oysters, pea shoots,, black fungus, sea cucumber, dried whole garlic. . . . There should be eight. . . ." It's a big platter of whole, dried scallops and seafood set on a mass of pea shoots and garnished with a special musky seaweed that looks like snarled tangles of black hair. The complex, salty tang of the dried seafood plays well against the sharp green of the pea shoots.
One night, we sit in the booths along the window, sandwiched between a trio of cool twentysomethings raving about the Chinese film "Eat Drink Man Woman" and two Italians conducting a job interview over potstickers and Peking duck.
" Delicioso ," says the job candidate as he dips his boat-shaped dumpling into the crimson chile sauce. Meanwhile, we're feasting on fat shrimp coated in spicy salt and a soothing beef soup laced with bland, hand-chopped beef, egg, tofu and cilantro, when one of the young women behind us cries, alarmed, "Oh, no! It's almost 10. Can we get the check?"
Their Chinese waiter who, before this moment, seems to barely speak English, understands right away. " 'NYPD Blue'! Shall I get you a police escort home?" he jokes. The bill materializes quickly. All three heads bend to study the astonishingly low sum. "This is my new favorite restaurant!" she trills as they rush off into the night--minus the police escort. We, on the other hand, can afford to dally; my trusty VCR was set to Channel 7. More tea, please.
J.R. Seafood, 11901 Santa Monica Blvd. (near Bundy), West Los Angeles; (310) 268-2463. Open daily. Parking in lot. No beer and wine license as yet. Dinner for two, food only, $20 - $50.