Editors' pick

Seven Seas

Chinese, Seafood, Sushi
$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

Smooth Sailing at Rockville's Seven Seas

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Feb. 16, 2007

When it comes to seafood, the quick are always better than the dead.

That has been the draw of Rockville's Seven Seas for 20 years, and it's still the primary directive for ordering. Cruise the tanks of gleaming tilapia, grouper or rockfish, crabs and Manila clams, and you'll understand.

Tucked into the lower level of the 1776 Plaza on the East Jefferson Street side (also called Federal Plaza), Seven Seas has long been a neighborhood habit. In a time when most American patrons of Chinese restaurants ate packaged, market-fileted or even frozen seafood without blinking and frequently shuddered at the sight of whole fish, even roasted or fried, with heads still on, Seven Seas was a rare pleasure. (Remember that famous phrase "I don't eat anything that looks back at me"?) Sunday brunches of fresh pink scallops, green-lipped mussels, giant razor clams and, on one occasion, fresh spider crab are among my favorite memories, as are a dinner of steamed shoulder of Ice Island black cod, self-basted in its subcutaneous fat and just touched with ginger and soy.

But the restaurant began to show its age, its decor a touch dingy and the building's plumbing cranky (not the staff's fault); the waiters were often reticent and even slightly truculent, although the hosts were always good consultants.

A few years ago, however, the place underwent a thorough renovation, and these days, spiffed up, sponge-painted an imperial red and much more consumer-friendly (the wait staff seems about half the age of the 20th-century servers and almost ebullient), Seven Seas is drawing in an even broader audience in terms of age and ethnicity. Eavesdrop for a few minutes (almost impossible to avoid, actually, in the relatively cozy dining room) and you'll pick out Hispanic, Yiddish, Vietnamese, imported and indigenous Washingtonian (i.e., "Warshin'tonian") accents as well as Chinese. With new townhouses in the neighborhood, young couples and families are eating in and carrying out.

Some of the live seafood tanks that lined the foyer have been moved toward the rear of the hallway, but a few serve as a wall divider alongside the main dining room, so that from certain tables you can catch the beady disapproving eye of a lobster or Dungeness crab. Nod back -- it's only polite to acknowledge your dinner companions -- and if you do order fresh seafood, your prospective entree will be presented in a pail as proof of its vitality before it's hustled back to the kitchen.

The kitchen has had to shift its emphasis a little. Post-9/11, tighter inspection routines have delayed or even compromised some fresh shellfish shipments, according to owner Edward Shen, so those pink scallops are hard to come by (although he insists on dry-packed, chemical-free replacements). The menu offers healthy items without MSG or oil, and there is a limited sushi bar (closed Mondays). The sushi bar is primarily a passing distraction, however, best considered as a nibble or kids' pacifier rather than a meal: The fish is fresh enough (not surprisingly) but far too chilly, which not only dulls the flavor but raises the question of just how fresh it might be, and the pasty rice is only a notch above grocery-store quality.

Most recently, Seven Seas introduced what it calls an "afternoon tea and taste sampler," a form of midday dim sum that is one of the area's best bargains: two appetizers, two entree samplers, rice and your choice of tea and ice cream for $12.99. And since the "samplers" are perhaps twice the size of tapas servings, it's quite a bit of food even before the fortune cookies and oranges.

Among the best appetizers are black mushroom rolls, smoky-flavored mushrooms in a tofu skin wrap; leek dumplings; shrimp "sea-maid," like steamed shrimp dumplings but with larger morsels of shrimp rather than a mousse; thin-skinned pan-fried shrimp dumplings; slightly sour turnip cakes, seared on the outside and mushy on the inside; jelly fish (like a Jell-O julienne; try it on the kids); and edamame for the soy addicted. Among entrees: ya-shiang eggplant, small seedless eggplant in a moderately hot, almost caramelized brown sauce; jasmine crispy head-on shrimp; chicken with wolfberry, a small fuschia fruit that tastes like a cross between a currant and a cranberry; clams in black bean sauce; okra, squid and pork; and several of the old favorite chicken and shrimp dishes.

The afternoon menu is available from noon to 6:30 every day, which turns a Twinbrook rush hour into a pleasure. (It's an easy walk from the Metro but a little long.) The fresh seafood is still the ideal, at least for one course. You can choose the fish steamed or fried, flavored with ginger and scallion sauce, black bean sauce, vinegar and salt (for the crabs) and so on.

Nevertheless, there are meatier dishes well worth the detour, notably an intimidatingly generous pork butt, slow braised on the bone (joint, actually) in its own fat and oyster sauce and carved tableside to reveal amazingly tender, just viscous meat. (At $18.95, it's several meals: entree for two, enough leftover meat for at least one stew and sufficient gelatinized sauce to season another, plus chunks of rind to flavor beans or minestrone. And bones for the doggy, of course.)

There are plenty of choices for vegetarians: fresh shiitakes with baby bok choy, spicy stir-fried string beans (make sure you ask to have the bacon cracklings left out), the eggplant and sweet and sour cabbage. "Hot pot" dishes here are not casseroles in the usual fashion, but heavy paper cones, something like Belgian frites packages, simmering over Sterno. The seafood (or tofu or whatever) stays tender and hot while you nibble.