Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Oceanic Exploration - The Succulent Live Lobster, Crab, Giant Shrimp, Geoduck, Fish and More at Sea Harbour (Dinner)

In delivering some of the best Dim Sum in Southern California, Sea Harbour garners a lot of attention (and rightfully so). But there's been noticeably less consideration for its dinner service over the years, probably due to a variety of factors, but most notably the premium price tag. For myself, over the past ~4 years of eating at Sea Harbour for dinner, it's been the slightly inconsistent quality of some of their dishes (their Live Seafood has always been great) that has left me less enthused than I normally would be for a restaurant of this caliber. It had been a good 8+ months since I last returned to Sea Harbour, but thanks to the repeated, strong recommendations from Chowhound veteran ipsedixit, I decided to stop by for a visit recently and found a completely reinvigorated menu and kitchen.

Since Day 1, Sea Harbour has staked its reputation on delivering high-quality, premium Hong Kong-style Cantonese Cuisine, even though the location may not seem to match its aspirations (they're situated where the old Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour used to be on Rosemead). Over the years, ordering anything that doesn't involve Live Seafood has resulted in some great dishes, some average dishes and a few misses as well. Their menu began to look really mundane and beaten down (literally - they hadn't replaced their menus in years, with crossed out prices, etc.), but on a recent visit, they've completely revamped their menu (with gorgeous layouts) and dropped the majority of the non-Live Seafood items (which is a good thing). The new menu is more focused and apparently they ship off their kitchen staff to their main branch in Zhongshan, China (just across from Hong Kong), where they train with Executive Chef Ho Hui Dong once a year.

(Note: This is a comprehensive review of my multiple visits over the past 4 years at Sea Harbour.)

(Note 2: All English romanizations of Chinese dish names are spelled phonetically to help with pronunciation; thanks to my SGV Hounds for translation help. :)

The interior is brightly lit and nicer than most San Gabriel Valley eateries, but even with their recent remodeling, they aren't going to be winning any restaurant design awards anytime soon; there's still a strange choice of decor in various parts of the restaurant. But it's pleasant enough, and you're treated to a wall of fish tanks, showcasing the variety of Live Seafood they're selling for that day.

Sea Harbour offers a variety of down-to-earth, traditional Cantonese dishes if you're in the mood, with their Jiao Yen Hsien Yoh (Fried Squid in Salty Chili) being a good example.

It's a slightly thick, crunchy batter, with a salty brininess and notes of Green Onions and hot Chilies complementing each bite. The Squid has been cooked just right each time I've ordered it over the years; a solid rendition of this classic dish.

Another humble dish that the kitchen gets right is the Tsong Tsai Zheng Rou Bing (Marinated Ground Pork Steamed with Preserved Vegetables).

The Ground Marinated Pork isn't too dense, with a pleasant, hearty, savory quality. The Preserved Vegetables impart a fragrant, salty-tart undertone that helps to break up the flavors of the Steamed Ground Pork. Delicious. :)

Although sometimes, Sea Harbour's aim to elevate dishes doesn't always work out, as in their Mei Tsai Rou Song Zheng Tsai Dahn (Ground Meat Steamed with Salted Vegetables).

The dish tastes like it looks: Two distinct, disparate parts, with the Steamed Ground Pork with Preserved Vegetables tasting similar to the previous dish and simply sitting on top of Boiled Chinese Mustard Greens.

One of the best values on the menu that shows some of the elegant simplicity of the kitchen is their Hsieh Rou Yu Du Geng (Fish Maw and Crab Meat Soup).

It's a light, thick soup, with chunks of Crab and Fish Maw cooked with Eggs in a Homemade Chicken Broth. It's lightly oceanic, warming and the notes of White Pepper perk up each bite perfectly. :) (Note: Don't forget to add a touch of Red Rice Vinegar if you enjoy a little tartness to the savory soup.)

Another homely, classic dish is their Jiao Yen Rou Pai (Spicy Salted Pork Chops).

You're immediately hit with the aroma of Deep Fried Garlic and Chilies, which transitions to crispy, crunchy satisfying bites of Deep Fried Pork Chops. :) The only problem is that over the years, the kitchen has been inconsistent with this dish. Sometimes, it's spot-on, while other times, it tastes overcooked and/or muted. They have since removed this dish from the menu (with their new menu revamp), but can make it upon request.

Next up is their Bai Guo Fu Zhu Yoh Tsai (Gingko Nuts Sauteed with Tofu Skin and Chinese Flowering Cabbage).

This is another dish that feels less well-integrated than it should be, with silky, slippery layers of Tofu Skin pairing fine with the Yoh Tsai vegetables, but clashing with the bitter, pungent Sauteed Gingko Nuts.

On the first of my recent visits (after the revamped menu), there's a noticeable change, even in the staff and service: As we're seated, we're asked what kind of tea we'd like (in previous visits, we oftentimes had to ask for a certain tea, otherwise we were just given a generic blend). You can choose from Chrysanthemum, Pu-Erh, Jasmine, Asphodel, Iron Goddess of Mercy or Ju Bu (a combination of Chrysanthemum and Pu-Erh Teas). We opted for Chrysanthemum Flower Tea for this visit. :)

We're also provided an amuse bouche of Simmered Lotus Root, which is crisp, earthy and exhibits an irresistible snap. :)

So with the new, retooled menu, the focus is squarely (and should be) on the variety of Seafood dishes, especially their Live Seafood. One of the highlights is their Live Lobster, which can be prepared in a variety of new and classic ways (11 styles total!): Lobster Fruit Salad, Lobster Sashimi, Stewed with Garlic and Chinese Rice Wine, Baked with Cheese and Cream, Baked with Superior Stock, Sauteed with Egg Whites, Wok Fried with Spicy Sauce, Pan Fried with Salt & Chilies, Pan Fried with Salt & Chilies Hong Kong Style (Bi Fohng Tahng), In a Rice Soup, or Fried with Green Onions and Ginger.

We usually opt for Live Lobster, Fried with Green Onions and Ginger, which is excellent, lightly sauced, and the Lobster has consistently been cooked just through, vibrant and juicy. :) Live Lobster, Sauteed with Egg Whites is a lot lighter, but still delicious, for those wanting to enjoy just the pure essence of the Lobster.

But as much as I enjoy Lobster, it just pales in comparison to my all-time favorite preparation of Shrimp: Bai Zuo Hsia (Poached Live Giant Shrimp (listed as "Prawns" on the menu)).

It's another market price item that you order by the pound (in half pound increments if you so desire), and there's nothing else like them. It's poached in its shell, so you have to peel them yourself, but it's *so* worth it. (^_^)

After peeling away the shell, you gently dip the Poached Live Shrimp into their Light Soy Sauce-based dipping sauce laced with Green Onions and Chili and you've got near-perfection! It's meatier, more tender and naturally sweeter than Lobster; delicious! (^_^) Over the past 4 years, the kitchen has always been consistently great with this dish. It's easily my favorite Live Seafood item at any Hong Kong / Cantonese Seafood restaurant. :) And if you're lucky and get some of the Live Shrimp with Shrimp Roe, it becomes even more amazing. :)

Part of the refocusing of the menu at Sea Harbour is one of the smartest changes I've seen at any of the Hong Kong-style Cantonese restaurants: Requiring their Half and Whole Chicken dishes to be ordered in advance (1 day notice). This allows the kitchen to finally serve consistently *fresh* Roasted or Fried Chickens without the cost-cutting measures plaguing most local restaurants serving these dishes (namely, serving leftover Chickens (tasting like it's 1-2 days old, reheated)).

Sea Harbour has now focused on 3 specialty Chicken dishes that require 1 day advance notice to order, and we decide to try their Bao Wong Ji, which is a Poached Free-Range Chicken served with a Wok-Fried Light Soy Sauce, Ginger, Green Onions and Cilantro.

The use of Huang Mao Ji (literally Yellow Feather Chicken (Free Range Chicken)) can be off-putting to some who are used to a fattier, looser Chicken meat. The Huang Mao Chicken's meat is denser, tighter and leaner, but it tastes so fresh (since it's made for your table's order only), and vibrant. Even the Chicken Breast portion is juicy and moist. Excellent! :)

Not every new dish on the menu is a winner, unfortunately, like their Ching Jie Tsao Zhu Jing Rou (There is no English name listed on the menu, but it's essentially Pork Neck Meat Sauteed with Asparagus).

The actual Pork Neck Meat and Asparagus are of good quality. Everything tastes fresh, but it also tastes very straightforward and one note.

One of my favorite vegetable dishes might very well be their Zhu Sheng Bai Tsai Dahn (Bamboo Pith Sauteed with Bok Choy).

While I enjoy the classic pure vegetables sauteed with a bit of Garlic (they usually have a selection of 3 - 6 varieties of fresh vegetables available that day), having their Bok Choy sauteed with Bamboo Pith just makes a good vegetable dish even better. :) For those that've never tried Bamboo Pith, it's slightly springy and spongy (in good way), and has a unique mouthfeel. It provides a playful textural contrast with whatever Vegetable it's paired with, and in the case of the lightly sauteed Bok Choy, it becomes the perfect foil.

Continuing on, the Hai Hsien Tsao Mien (Assorted Seafood with Fried Crispy Noodles) arrive next.

The dish arrives with Shrimp, Squid, Scallops and Rock Cod atop a bed of Chow Mein using thin Egg Noodles. The Noodles are a bit too wet and soggy in the center, but the rest of the Noodles are deliciously crispy and crunchy. The Scallops, Squid, Rock Cod and Shrimp are all cooked just right, with a pleasing tenderness.

Perhaps the ultimate celebratory, special occasion dish at most Hong Kong-style Cantonese restaurants is a restaurant's Shark Fin Soup. I haven't found a great Shark Fin's Soup in So Cal, so I'm curious how Sea Harbour's turns out. With their new menu, Sea Harbour serves Shark Fin in a variety of ways, atop fresh Papaya, or the new Pan Fried Shark's Fin with Black Truffles (at $70 per person). But my guests and I decide on their purest presentation: Hohng Shao Da Bao Chi (Braised Premium Shark's Fin in Brown Sauce).

It thankfully turns out to be far less ostentatiously presented than the gaudy, fake gold bowls at Elite, and upon taking the first sip... leagues better. Shark Fin is mainly cartilage, so there's very little inherent taste. As a result, a great Shark Fin Soup is all about the quality of the Soup it's presented in. The Soup has a fragrant aroma and a delicate, balanced savoriness with a slight ocean breeze.

The Shark Fin itself is of excellent quality, a thick meaty texture and the Bean Sprouts are cooked through which is nice touch after the disaster at Elite. Overall, a solid rendition of Shark Fin Soup, and the best version I've found so far locally, but still a distant third compared to the Shark Fin Specialists I tried in Hong Kong and Taipei.

For Clam lovers, their Jio Tsai Hua Rou Fa Tsao Ge Rou (Clams Sauteed with Pork and Chinese Chives) turns out to be a pleasant surprise.

There's an enticing brininess from the Clams, balanced by the slivers of Fatty Pork and refreshing Chinese Chives. The use of Red and Green Chilies adds a mild spiciness with a slow burn, which makes this dish even more enjoyable.

Another surprise dish is their Hai Shen Bei Gu Uh Zhang Bao (Braised Sea Cucumber, Goose Web, Chinese Mushrooms Casserole).

The Sea Cucumber is light and pliable, yet still retains enough meaty firmness to give it a satisfying chew. The Braising Sauce shows restraint and is well-balanced, not too salty nor overpowering.

But it's the Braised Goose Web (Goose Feet) that are the biggest surprise. I enjoy Goose when I can find it at local restaurants, but the Goose Web reminds me of just how much deep, genuine Poultry flavor Goose meat can exhibit. There are a lot of bones, but the Goose Skin, bits of meat and Cartilage are wonderful. :)

One of Sea Harbour's greatest strengths is their Live Fish (but also their most expensive item on the menu depending on the type (after Live King Crab)). They usually stock 2 or 3 types of Fish, depending on supplies, but most of the time it's Live Tilapia, Live Red Cod and Live Australian Grouper. You should always check with your server to see what the market price is for a Live Fish if you're going to order one, to prevent sticker shock. While Sea Harbour's other prices seem fair, their Live Fish prices exceed even Elite's prices, with Live Australian Grouper selling for a whopping $79 per pound (with a 2 pound minimum, and many times, their fish can run 3+ pounds); paying ~$240 for 1 fish dish is a bit extreme.

I usually go with their Ching Zheng Hohng Bahn (Steamed Red Cod with Green Onion and Cilantro) at $30 per pound.

Tied with the Poached Live Shrimp as one of my favorite dishes would have to be Hong Kong-style Cantonese Steamed Fish. :) There's nothing better than tasting, succulent, flaky, bright chunks of very fresh Fish (live just minutes earlier), and Sea Harbour's version is flawless. :) The Red Cod is firm, yet supple, and beautifully matched with their wok-fried Light Soy Sauce, Green Onions and Cilantro. Add this atop some Steamed Rice and you have one of the most delicious bites in town. (^_^)

The nice thing about ordering a larger Live Fish, is that you get the option to have the Fish Head prepared as a separate dish. On one visit, we have them prepare it as a Sha Guo Yu Toh (Fish Head Casserole (in Clay Pot)).

They deep fry chunks of the Red Cod Fish Head, and quickly braise it with Tofu, Ginger, Garlic and Green Onions. While there's not a lot of meat in the Fish Head chunks, there's a lot of flavor, and the Tofu and Braising Liquid make it all the more satisfying. :)

Another winner is their Sheng Zha Miao Ling Guh (Deep Fried Tender Squab), which requires a 1 day advanced notice.

Presented on an adorably cheesy, heart-shaped platter, our 2 Squabs taste fresh, with a delightful, slightly crisped skin. The Squab meat also has a light gaminess which makes it more distinct and appetizing.

We also order their Suan Rohng Tsao Lu Shwun (Asparagus Sauteed with Garlic) to balance out all the meat dishes. :)

It's cooked just right, with a good firmness in the Sauteed Asparagus.

We finish up with another outstanding dish: Hsiang Bah Bahng (Live Geoduck, Sashimi Style).

Their Live Geoduck can be prepared a variety of ways (like all their Live Seafood): Sashimi, Flash Soaked, Poached, Scalded Oil, Wok Fried with Ginger, or in a Soup. The "head" of the Geoduck can be prepared Fried with Salt & Chilies, Stir Fried with Preserved Vegetables or in a Rice Soup.

Over the years, I've found that I enjoy a Sashimi style the most, which is what we ordered here. Sea Harbour's execution of Geoduck Sashimi is excellent. The Live Geoduck is really bright, clean with a slight crunch and inherently sweet. It's gorgeous on its own, without any need to dab it in the provided Soy Sauce and Wasabi. :)

The 2nd preparation for the Geoduck "Head" is a bit disappointing though: Jiao Yen Hsiang Bah Bahng (Geoduck Fried in Salt & Chili).

The Fried Garlic Chips mixed in with each bite of the Geoduck meat is undeniably delicious, but it's just way too salty, making it nearly inedible. It's probably the only dish I've had at Sea Harbour that was this overpowering.

Service during dinner at Sea Harbour has been decent. It's fine for a standard Chinese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley, but in presenting itself as a premium, quality establishment, their service still has room to improve. When showing up for a banquet / party, the service is usually very good, with multiple servers checking in on the table, clearing plates promptly and providing new ones, etc. On some occasions, though, the service can be a bit slow at times, and you'll find yourself waving to get any server's attention to tend to your needs.

Prices range dramatically from ~$10.50 - Market Price (the highest I've seen is the $79 per pound for the Live Australian Grouper), with most Non-Live Seafood items in the ~$13 - 15 range. Our average cost per person has also fluctuated dramatically, all depending on what you order. On some visits (with no Live Seafood items), it can fall in the ~$25 per person (including tax and tip) range, while if you want to go all out with Live King Crab, Live Lobster, Shark Fin Soup, etc., you can easily get into the $200+ per person range.

Sea Harbour represents one of Southern California's best Hong Kong-style Cantonese Seafood restaurants. With the newly revamped menu, removal of many dishes that didn't work, and a better focus on quality above all else, there's much to celebrate at this San Gabriel Valley gem. While the execution could still use some polish (for their Non-Live Seafood items), it's the best we have in So Cal, and with their top notch preparations for Live Seafood (especially the Poached Live Giant Shrimp, Steamed Live Fish and Live Geoduck), and advanced order items like their Deep Fried Tender Squab, any of their 3 Whole Free-Range Chicken dishes, and more, Sea Harbour has firmly re-established itself as the go-to restaurant for a great Hong Kong-style Cantonese Seafood dinner.

Rating: 8.2 (out of 10.0)

Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant (Hai Gahng Dah Jio Loh)
3939 N. Rosemead Blvd.
Rosemead, CA 91770
Tel: (626) 288-3939

Hours: [Dinner] 7 Days A Week, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.


Banana Wonder said...

Excellent review, as always! I can't get over the cheesy squab presentation, and I'm considering a future Valentine's Date at Sea Harbour. I have actually been once to Sea Harbor and we got seated way in the back since there was a wedding banquet going on at the time. When I get the hankering for Chinese and I'm back in town, I know where to go! Thanks.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anna,

Thanks. :) That Squab Platter is indeed special. :) LOL. I hope you enjoy your dinner Sea Harbour.

weezermonkey said...

I've never been here for a non-dim-sum meal!

I, too, can't stop laughing at the squab in love.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

If you enjoy seafood, you should give Sea Harbour a try. That Squab plate is something special. :) :P

Unknown said...

When , more specifically, did Sea Harbour change their kitchen staff? On my most recent annual month-long visit last April to eat my way through your fare city (usually ~6-8 places a day), Sea Harbour was among the low points of the trip. The food, straight across the board, tasted tired, overly-oily, and usually flat-out bland.
I truly don't write this because I have a need to write another unnecessary/unwanted pissing commentary about a restaurant but to know whether it is worth another try on my visit next week?

Thanks, as always, for your valued culinary perspective.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Robert,

Thanks for your report back. My condolences on your previous visit! Your description makes me recall one of my worst meals at Sea Harbour (maybe 1 year ago) when I was down on the restaurant as well. But then the change happened.

Hm, when you went in April, did they feature brand-new, high-gloss menus with beautiful HD pictures of their food? (that's one sign of the change that happened)

If not, then it happened right after your visit (my recent visits started around... end of May / June -> present).

Also, if I may ask, were you able to order any of their Live Seafood? Or was it mainly Non-Seafood dishes? I've noticed in general that their (and Elite's) Non-Seafood items (except Sea Harbour's new Order In Advance Chicken and Squab items) are ~Ok, but nothing to write home about.


Unknown said...

I do believe they had the new glossy menus when we were there.
And, btw, nice deduction on your part that we didn't have any live seafood dishes! I'll definitely make that a priority on my retry there.
Thanks again for your rock solid reviews.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Robert,

You are too kind; I just try and write about my experiences, and hopefully it's useful to someone.

I hope you enjoy your dinner at Sea Harbour and definitely try get some Live Seafood (if it's within your budget) and the order in advance Poultry items. :) Thanks.

Lau said...

Wow this looks great, ive always wondered why the US has never had good high end HK dining (one of my favorite types of food when done right); completely impossible in NY! Although there probably aren't enough well to do HK type people concentrated in LA unlike HK.

I'll have to round up alot of people and go there one day when i'm back at home. This is a great post.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Lau,

Thanks. Hope you enjoy your visit to Sea Harbour! :)

Anonymous said...

Hi exile kiss-

can you tell me the names and descriptions of the other 2 different types of chicken dishes that require 1 day advance notice? or at least the phonetic pronunciation? We're going to seafood harbour for turkey day dinner and none of us speak or read chinese?

thanks so much,


Exile Kiss said...

Hi YB,

Ack. I've been away for the holidays and just got to checking my mail. Apologies! :( It's too late now, but here are the 3 Chicken Dishes (order in advance):

* Hai Gahng Di Yi Ji - Hand Wrapped Boneless Chicken.

* Ba Wong Ji - Steamed Chicken with Ginger & Onions with Soy Sauce.

* Ho Si Ji - Hot Spicy Chicken.


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