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Master of Deception 

Singular dishes stick out at OCEAN CITY, whose Chinese seafood transcends its bland environment.

Ocean City, a 4-month-old temple to Chinese seafood, is an underachiever from just about every angle. For starters, it's isolated on the lonely second floor of a partly up-market (Edward Jones, Boudreaux's Fine Jewelers), partly mainstream (TCBY, Blockbuster) Old Metairie shopping center. The sign for the restaurant's former occupant, Mr. Tai's, still lights up, while a sad, disposable-looking Ocean City banner flaps in the wind below it.

Past the threshold, there's no live lobster tank, no bubbling fountain, no bowing hostess-- just baskets of peppermints, a dry-erase specials board and Richard Wu, Ocean City's young, wan, hard-hustling owner who seems to work every dinner shift, alone. The menu offers all the banal American-Chinese dishes you can get anywhere -- teriyaki chicken, orange beef, shrimp lo mein. There's nary a pair of chopsticks in sight.

I'm not the first person to declare that appearances can be deceiving, though I'll happily be the latest, as Ocean City's unusual seafood selection demands the cliche. I tasted the first inkling of this in the Salt and Pepper Calamari: chewy, golden brown loops and tentacles tossed with an invigorating sprinkle of coarse salt, black pepper, ginger, green onion and red chile flakes, all clinging together with the glue of sesame oil. It's like beer nuts for the Imperial Family: precious and addicting.

Wu, a New York City transplant, spent the past couple years at Metairie's Ding How. While he unfortunately didn't transport Ding How's terrific weekend dim sum practice to his new, buffet-less digs, he did carry over some of its more exotic dishes, such as duck feet with sea cucumber and abalone in oyster sauce. And, unlike at Ding How where you practically have to speak Chinese to get at them, the unusual dishes are listed on Ocean City's regular menu.

Jelly Fish with Cold Meat has a wider appeal than its weirdness might suggest. The jelly fish forms a centerpiece of softly gelatinous, opaque amber squiggles that would taste as mild as plain glass noodles were they not coated in vinegar and red chile flecks. Thin slices of orange and bologna-like cold cuts rimmed with a cartilage-like substance encircle the jelly fish, making the dish a sort of refreshing Chinese antipasto platter.

The least common, and most extravagant, dish you'll encounter here is a $15.95 bowl of shark's fin soup. The only other area restaurant I've found that serves this controversial delicacy is Double Dragon in Belle Chasse, where they won't prepare it for less than 10 people. Shark's fin is prized for its smooth, gelatinous texture, not the fishy flavor that disappears after it soaks and cooks; its greatness is easily lost on someone who measures an ingredient's worth by the volume of its flavor. Ocean City's respectable version of the soup involves a light brownish, translucent broth whose mildly oceanic nuances are probably due to the lumps of imitation crabmeat. The soup's texture is slightly viscous, like a watered-down egg white, and its supreme appeal is, unquestionably, the ghostly clear shark's fin needles that crunch like super-set gelatin.

Among the various ways in which Ocean City's kitchen doesn't seem bound to the typical American tongue is its penchant for heat; immoderate cooks exploit hot chiles and black pepper to great success. The hot and sour soup had three of us sniffling with its dark, almost burnt-tasting vinegar backdrop and the red chile bits that swirled around like disturbed sediment with each dip of a spoon. And real tears welled up as we eviscerated a hot stone pot delivered with clams still simmering in an aromatic, not particularly Asian-tasting, broth seasoned for wintertime with bay leaves, orange peel and whole dried chile peppers.

Scallops battered and fried into craggy spheres could have been battered and fried anything -- as long as they were smothered in the odd but exciting pepper sauce that must have required a full cup of ground black pepper (I could sneeze just thinking about it). This dish is a complete palate killer. Eat it last and eat it all.

The dining room was as empty as the menu is long on most of my visits, which causes a discerning diner to question the possibility of freshness. Can a kitchen with low turnover guarantee a prime catch? Apparently so: a whole frizzle-fried flounder large enough to scare an alley cat had the most beautiful, sweet-tasting, paper-white flesh. Eating it Hunan-style -- brushed with a salty-sweet Asian paste -- felt as wicked as drowning a New York strip with catsup.

It may not be your instinct, but try to stick to the ocean here. Flopping around the menu could yield oily Singapore-style rice noodles or vegetable-heavy moo shu pork that tastes a lot like fajitas. Neither are terrible, but that's not the point.

Ocean City's ordinary Chinese restaurant atmosphere is correspondingly bland, almost haunted when it's slow. You consequently tend to remember dishes here rather than meals. This is all right if you're a culinary adrenaline junkie for whom one remarkable dish makes a meal. Everyone else should bring a busload of friends.

click to enlarge The Hunan-style flounder, large and fresh, is one of - the many Asian seafood highlights at OCEAN CITY. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • The Hunan-style flounder, large and fresh, is one of the many Asian seafood highlights at OCEAN CITY.
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