The rout started with a voice-mail tip about a Korean restaurant called Secret Garden, reported to be serving sashimi made from live fish. The owners themselves bring the fish flapping from North Carolina in a truck fitted with tanks of water, and keep them swimming in tanks in the restaurant's adjacent grocery store until they're served.
That was just the kind of outlandish commitment to quality that perks up a restaurant critic's ears.
The problem was, the telephone company had no listing for Secret Garden restaurant. I spent days tracking it down. Once I succeeded, I couldn't wait to try this singularly fresh fish.
Bee Won Secret Garden, as I eventually discovered, has been around for years, but now the sons of the original owner have taken it over and decided to raise it to a new level. What Koreans really covet for sashimi, they say, is the very freshest of fish: alive until it's served. So they set out to provide it.
When I arrived with my guests, all we saw was an attractive but standard-issue Korean restaurant with a sushi bar and gas grills sunk into the blocky wood tables. The dining room smelled of barbecued meat. The menu was the typical encyclopedic listing of Korean and Japanese dishes. You have to know to ask for the live fish.
The waitresses barely speak English, yet they're adept at gesturing and so intent on being helpful that barriers were easily overcome. Once ours got over her surprise at our wanting live fish, she took two of us to the grocery to pick one. There a very communicative owner showed us the tanks full of flounder rough-skinned and spotted, looking more like rocks than dinner. He figured our group of four would need a two-pound fish; the charge is $25 a pound. We chose, and he netted our entree.
We were a greedy bunch, so we ordered a couple of extra dishes, despite the waitress's warnings that we'd have more than enough to eat. Mandoo turned out to be handmade dumplings with wispy thin wrappers and a fluffy meat filling that could have used seasoning. The seafood pancake was the best I've tried of this Korean classic. Halfway between a batter and a dough, it was crisp-edged and chock-full of oyster bits, crab meat and bland little shrimp, which livened up with a drizzle of tangy soy-based sauce.
A sampling of condiments launched our fish feast: two sauces, one spiked with chilies, the other flavored with sweet-salty beans; small dishes of chunky fish in a red paste and of seaweed gelatin in peppery soy sauce; lettuce leaves for wrapping the sashimi into packets.
We were primed. But the suspense wasn't over.
The flounder dinner's appetizers arrived: a California roll of surimi and avocado, a small whole fried fish that was deliciously crisp-edged, and a "relish tray" of carrots, cucumbers, garlic cloves and green chilies.
Next came a larger array of condiments, the typical Korean assortment: cold sesame spinach, crunchy tiny dried fish, marinated bean sprouts, kimchi and more. Fine. But we could hardly wait another minute for the raw flounder.
Presented with a flourish, it looked like enough to feed the entire restaurant, and it was gorgeous. Faintly pinkish-white translucent slices were meticulously arranged between the head and the tail on the bare fish frame. We caught our breath and then sighed in admiration.
The fish sighed, too.
Its mouth was moving. Shudders ran along the table. Expectant faces tightened in horror. I explained that the movement was a reflex, like a chicken with its head cut off, and the fish was certainly not alive. I wasn't very persuasive, but everyone agreed to at least sample it.
I couldn't believe my taste buds. This seconds-away-from-swimming fish had no taste. It was chewy; rigor mortis hadn't passed. Otherwise, it was a blank in my mouth. It had none of the romance of a just-caught trout cooked beside a mountain stream. No smell, no flavor; it was nowhere near wonderful. As that mouth kept moving, my disappointment mingled with the uneasy stirring of disgust creeping from where I was trying to bury it in my mind. I couldn't go on. The others had stopped long before.
The waitress came to our rescue. Would we like the head and tail removed? Oh, yes. And perhaps we'd like her to cook some of the fish? Ah, that would be delightful.
She soon reappeared with golden slices of fish that had been pan-fried in an eggy batter. It was light and delicate. But we looked at one another in dismay. Where was the flavor? We even ordered some ordinary flounder sushi to compare; it seemed disconcertingly like the live fish, though less chewy. Raw flounder, being so much leaner than the more popular tuna and yellowtail, just can't compete with them for flavor.
By now, despite having eaten very little of the flounder, we weren't hungry. Yet we knew the fish soup was still to come.
The waitress turned on the gas in our table-top burner. She set on it a wok of broth made from the fish bones and four large clams, which had been simmering in the kitchen. She poked into the broth a platterful of watercress, onions and thinly sliced vegetables with four big chunks of tofu. She added the leftover sashimi. We watched it bubble, the fish growing opaque and flaky amid eddies of red chili oil. It smelled good to me, though the others looked ready to escape.
I liked the soup. It was spicy and steamy, undeniably fishy and powerful. The others only tried to look as if they were eating it, and groaned when I asked to take home the rest.
Everyone bowed as we left. Three waitresses, the owner, the sushi chef. I looked longingly at the Asian man at a nearby table who was leaning closely over a big iron kettle of soup, surrounded by a bunch of small white bowls of condiments. He clearly knew what he wanted, anticipated it with pleasure and was fulfilling his expectations.
I was going home to write about my failed ones. Even more, I knew I'd have to face a barrage from grossed-out readers who would consider me something akin to a criminal for eating raw a fish that I had personally consigned to its death. And probably their voices would be no louder than those who scoffed at me as a culinary wimp.
Bee Won Secret Garden Restaurant 6678 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703/533-1004. Open: daily 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; lunch specials Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate smoking area. Prices: appetizers $1.50 to $7.95; lunch entrees $6.50 to $29; dinner entrees $8.95 to $29. Full dinner with beer, tax and tip $25 to $40 per person.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company