About 40 years ago, somebody figured the Westside needed a good Chinese restaurant and opened the legendary Madame Wu's, which recently closed. Last year, some other people figured the Westside specifically needed a Monterey Park-style Chinese seafood palace, pretty much along the lines of Ocean Star, which they happened to own.
And so Royal Star Seafood Restaurant was born. It has the size (if not quite the warehouse scale) of Ocean Star, the vast menu (though a recent revision took it down from 190 items to a mere 168) and the teeming fish tanks you'd expect of a Monterey Park seafood restaurant, only plopped down in Santa Monica.
The first thing you see as you enter is the wall full of tanks with their ever-changing contents. One night one of them was full of large crayfish (but not for sale; the entire batch was bespoken for a single party). The next thing you notice is the space--three good-sized rooms, plus an area by the bar that could be pressed into service if needed. Even so, Royal Star is often fairly crowded.
And that must be because the quality is high. The only thing that has ever disappointed me here was an order of garlic shrimp with a bleach-like off flavor. But the dish was not perfunctory in any other way--it had a lively garlic and tomato sauce, along with some crunchy purple fungus for textural interest.
You could start a meal with perfectly fine appetizers in the spring roll/pot sticker category, or an above-average Hong Kong chicken salad with a honey-citrus dressing and big red slices of pickled ginger. Even better are the various "lettuce buns"--those refreshing snacks of minced meat (such as chicken and shrimp) wrapped in lettuce leaves and eaten taco-fashion. There are also a more than a dozen soups, such as winter melon--a clean-tasting broth with peas, mushrooms and chunks of winter melon and duck floating in it.
The menu lists a huge array of seafood, including geoduck, sea cucumber (which the menu calls "marine ginseng") and shark's fin. Myself, I couldn't keep from going back to the shellfish tanks every time I went. Two specialties here (they aren't even available at the parent Ocean Star in Monterey Park) are meu-gai crab and tai pan lobster. They're bothtossed in a wok with garlic and black pepper, but the former has some hot peppers andvinegar and the latter cilantro and lemon grass. They're a little trouble to eat but finger-licking good.
If a dish isn't on the menu, they might make it for you anyway. One night I ordered crab Sichuan-style, under the (false) impression I'd seen it listed, and they whipped me up one covered with black beans and mushrooms, all tart and spiked with hot pepper. And it was a she-crab with a generous portion of rich roe.
Among the 15 shrimp dishes, you can get delicately crunchy prawns in spicy salt and mee-tao har, a great, if slightly mannered, dish of curled-up prawns, coated with a lick of honey mayonnaise and served with candied walnuts.
A number of things, from oysters to green beans, are available with X.O. sauce, a fashionable Hong Kong condiment made from dried shrimp and scallops. It tastes a little like Worcestershire sauce crossed with barbecue sauce (one of my guests described it as oyster sauce "without the cigar butt flavor"). The oysters with X.O. are served mixed with a lot of diced sweet peppers.
Seduced by the shellfish selection, I ended up having only one fish dish: rock cod filet with black bean sauce and chile. It was perfectly sauteed, silky in texture, mixed with briefly cooked tomatoes and sweet peppers. I kicked myself that I hadn't ordered fish before.
Royal Star has things to offer people who aren't in the mood for seafood. Along with a short list of familiar meat and poultry dishes, it has a smashing beef specialty called royal shan yu filet. The strips of meat are deliciously lacquered with plum sauce scented with orange peel and black pepper, but the most memorable thing about them is their tender, almost puffy texture.
There aren't a lot of vegetable dishes, though you can get sauteed snow pea leaves when available: Think greens that taste like peas. In my life I've scarcely ever had a tofu dish I liked, but the braised tofu dishes here have an irresistible slithery texture.
I have to go back. I haven't had any noodle dishes, or hot pots, or squid, or scallops or moo shu! I might even try some of that marine ginseng.
Royal Star Seafood Restaurant, 3001 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 828-8812. Full bar. Parking lot. Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$74. What to Get: Winter melon soup, Hong Kong chicken salad, meu-gai crab, mee-tao har, royal shan yu filet, sauteed snow pea leaves.