46 Beach Street, Boston
Open Mon–Thu, 10:30 a.m.–2 a.m.; and Fri–Sun, 10:30 a.m.–3 a.m.
AE, Di, MC, Vi
Beer and wine
No valet parking
Access down full flight of stairs
Well, it’s back to the days of underground gourmet. Gourmet Seafood is literally in the basement of the same building as the second-floor Chinatown Eatery. Upstairs for variety, downstairs for service. We’re also back to the Chinatown multiple-menu problem. The live tanks tell us we’re in a Hong Kong seafood restaurant, but the bilingual menu mentions nothing about the eels, codfish, spider crabs, and shrimp in the live tanks. Instead, it adds everything else anyone might associate with a Chinese restaurant, from lo mein to Sichuan food. There’s a little folder of all-Chinese information that probably has a lot more in it, but for those who cannot read Chinese, this is another place where it pays to look around and ask about that enticing dish on the other table. We did that on both of our visits, and both servers were quite helpful in naming the mystery dishes. One, who got the drift of my interest, made some other good off-menu suggestions.
One dish that is on the English menu is "oysters in half shell" ($8.95). What the menu doesn’t tell you is that you can order them at $1.50 each, and that they’re cooked giant Pacific oysters with a bit of garlic-bean sauce, and something of a best buy. A downtown bistro would charge about $9 for an appetizer made from just one or two of these huge, meaty oysters.
Working with one of our waiters, we had a steamed sea bass (seasonal; ours $24.95), not right out of the tank, but exquisitely fresh and delicious in a simple Cantonese soy-based sauce with fine shreds of ginger and carrot. The fish was maybe a 1.5-pounder, with a lot of meat for its size; it was worth prying every nugget from the top of the head, the cheeks, the tail, and so on.
On the other hand, another typical Cantonese seafood dish, clams and black-bean sauce ($9.50), was a big bowl of fresh, small clams in the shell. But the black-bean sauce lacked the salty tang of the fermented beans, and even the finely sliced rings of chili peppers lacked heat, as though sweet jalapeños had been substituted for the usual killer bird peppers.
"Stir fried pea pods steams [sic]" ($10.95) were garlicky and green, with the flavor of snap-pea stems, which are somewhere between pea and asparagus. Our dish was a little heavy on the grease. Broccoli with oyster sauce ($6.95), however, is real Chinese broccoli, which has fewer and smaller heads, but a wonderful sweetness in every stem and leaf.
The English menu has both chicken with vegetable ($8.25) and chicken with mixed vegetables ($8.25). We decided on the latter, and got a pleasant, hearty stir-fry of boneless chicken chunks and mixed vegetables, crunchy like Julia Child told us fresh vegetables ought to be. This kind of stir-fry really belongs over a lot of rice — which, at Gourmet Seafood, is good, aromatic stuff — or over chow foon (a lunch special, at $5.25).
The tea is medium-strength and somewhat earthy, but pleasant and refilled on request. A novel trimming is a bowl of peanuts for quick munching before the real food comes.
The room, which I last reviewed as Asian Garden, is quite nice once you get downstairs and past the saltwater tanks at the front. The new restaurant still has lots of congratulatory plants with red ribbons and china cat statues waving one hand. I always thought the waving cats were Japanese, and they are, as an ancient story has a Buddhist temple cat named Maneki Neko waving to some samurai who end up coming inside, taking lessons, and endowing the shrine. The waving cat, properly the beckoning cat, then became a symbol of welcoming prosperity in Japanese shops, and spread across Asia. Apparently, her name in Chinese is Zhao Mao, and she brings in wealthy customers. The fortune cookies are also somewhat materialistic, but the mints on the way out are pure transcendence.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com.