The very first meal I enjoyed at South Sea Seafood Village, a festive dinner a few months ago, led me to name it as the Best Chinese Restaurant in our 2006 Best of San Francisco issue. The evening was full of unexpected and delightful surprises.
First, it was finding easy parking right across the street from the inviting red-tiled façade of the place. Then, behind the cheerful but homey exterior, we entered to discover a glamorous, glitzy, and impressive room, featuring heavy, glossy dark rosewood furniture inlaid with exquisite mother-of-pearl landscapes under brilliant crystal chandeliers. Hong-Kong-meets-Vegas style, in the best sense of both worlds. And finally, there was the discovery that a last-minute addition to our motley crew of locals and out-of-towners (I'd tried for eight hungry gourmands, settled for six) was, unbeknownst to me, the sister of good friends who lived in Los Angeles. The more people you have, the more you can sample without guilt, I figured, greedily.
And there was plenty to sample from. The multipage printed menu, encased in a sturdy leather binding, contains 153 dishes in numerous categories: 20 under B.B.Q. and Appetizers, 11 soups, another 11 in a separate category of shark fin and abalone soups, 27 fresh seafood items, 15 under beef and pork, 11 poultry, 10 clay pots, 10 vegetables, 19 noodle, chow fun, and rice offerings, and eight desserts — four of which need to be ordered in advance, including the double-boiled bird's nest in almond cream and the double-boiled bird's nest in coconut cream, at $38 a person. That steep tariff isn't at all indicative of the much more reasonable prices on the regular menu, though some of the dishes on a special “Order in Advance” page, such as the Supreme Shark's Fin Soup With Chicken and Cabbage, at $300 — serves 10! — or the Lobster Salad With Mix Fruits, $22/lb., minimum 3 lbs, approach the same realm. There are 20 additional preparations on a separate, unbound laminated page entitled “Chef Kwan's Recommendations,” seasonal dishes that change frequently.
And I won't even mention the 121-item dim sum menu, mostly because we weren't handed it at dinner (though on my second visit I could swear I saw another party ordering from it.)
That second visit was hotly anticipated by me from the first tastes of the first dishes to hit the table: an exceptionally delicate crab and sweet corn soup, an amazingly generous plate of beautifully roasted duck — it appeared to be almost a whole duck, certainly there were two fat drumsticks, sliced into thick chunks, for only $8 — and beautifully fried salt and pepper tofu, custardy under its crisp evanescent crust.
This was Cantonese cooking at its very best, reminiscent of the food I'd enjoyed in Hong Kong (Chef Kwan is, according to South Sea's Web site, “Hong Kong's most celebrated five-star restaurant chef”). We feasted on lobster stir-fried with garlic sauce and whole snowy-fleshed sea bass steamed under cilantro and slivered scallions; both the 1 1/2 pound lobster and the fish were pulled from tanks and brought to the table to be admired in plastic buckets. (I was a trifle disappointed that the only fresh fish we were offered that night were sea bass or catfish; the Web site lists nearly a dozen possibilities.)
Everything we tried was delicious, including stir-fried scallops with pine nuts and brilliant green snap peas, a clay pot of roasted pork and huge chewy oysters, and the best version of sautéed string beans with minced pork I've ever had. (Well, the braised yee mein noodles with crab meat were rather bland, and not very crabby.) We never got around to ordering dessert, because we were treated to a soupy tapioca pudding and two kinds of cookies on the house. We stood around on the sidewalk afterward, calling our L.A. pals to tell them about finding out that our S.F. acquaintance was related to them, which, along with the rapturous descriptions of our dinner, seemed enough to entice them up for a visit. And another visit to South Sea Seafood.
When I assembled a crew for a subsequent meal, no enticements were necessary for my aunt Muriel, who lives not far away, and, it turned out, knew the place well, and corrected me when I said it was newish. It's actually four years old, though its constantly refreshed decor has recently added polished-wood wainscoting to the white painted walls. “Once,” she said, “the whole downstairs was taken up by an elaborate wedding party, and we were given a table on the balcony, so we got a floor show along with our dinner.” We were joined by my cousin Erica, her husband Bill, and my parents, always hungry for Chinese food. Muriel requested her favorite salt-and-pepper squid, which looked something like dark-crusted French fries and were as easy to eat. We tried a re-run of the roasted duck, whose juicier, paler flesh proved interesting to compare and contrast with a dish chosen off the seasonal menu, garlic-roasted squab, whose succulent rich meat tasted almost chocolatey under its lacquered skin, though we wondered why we only got two legs, since we ordered two squabs, and received a full complement of wings!
My mother was attracted to the cold chicken feet dipped in ginger vinaigrette, and I voted along with her for the special mustard greens cooked with goose feet, but my father prevailed with mustard greens with black mushrooms, the tender young pale green bulbs excitingly set off by the chewy, meaty mushroom caps. When I asked him to choose between beef stew in broth and wokked black pepper spareribs, he substituted beef with Chinese broccoli, which was an unexpected triumph, applauded by all: along with the expected guilan, the dish featured two kinds of pea pods and sweet carrots cut in fancy shapes. “I could be happy with nothing but vegetables here,” said my dad, who loved the lightly cooked beans in the string beans with pork (less pork than before, I thought). Bill's choice, Scallops With Special Spicy Sauce, used masses of barely cooked celery, his least-favorite vegetable, alas, as a textural contrast to the spongy, springy scallops that the rest of us found effective. (Neither the scallops nor the string beans were as spicy as we'd been warned.) The heaps of disjointed Dungeness crab baked with ginger and scallions was faultless, with a shell so thin that its legs could be cracked in the hand (and a bargain at $17.50, that night's market price), though we found the lobster steamed with ginger on cellophane noodles (market price, $22.50) a little boring.
This time the dessert brought unbidden was creamy tofu floating in sugar water, which nobody but me seemed to relish; so we ordered a firm, jellolike mango pudding to share, whose fruit flavor was just discernable under a wave of heavy perfume (“It tastes like lipstick,” my father said. “Whose?” my mother queried.)
South Sea Seafood Village offers a number of intriguing set-price banquets, ranging from six dishes for two people at $17.99 a person to an elaborate feast of more than a dozen items for $568 for 10 people. But we were more than satisfied by the banquets we'd assembled on our own.