Open Sunday noon to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested for weekends.
Prices: Main dishes at lunch $3.50 to $4.75; at dinner main dishes $6 to about $17, average $7 to $9. Full dinner with tax and tip about $15 to $20 a person.
Nobody mentions Polynesian anymore. Cantonese peaked years ago. The fires of Szechuan and Human are settling back to embers. But whether the accent is Italian, French or Greek, everybody is eating seafood. Thus it should be no surprise to see a second Chinese seafood restaurant open, this one the China Coral, ne the Diamond Head.
Where Chinese restaurants once greeted you with a sales counter of chopsticks and imitation jade, now your introduction to the dining room is a lobster tank and a trout tank. And thus it is at China Coral, you can pick your trout or have one in a net on your table for your inspection. And then you can have it prepared to your taste. If you know what's best, you'll order it simmered, which means that it is cooked in plain water (not boiled, just simmered, the maitre d'hotel explains) and topped with shreds of ginger, scallion and sweet pickled melon that plays well against the gingery heat and soy saltiness. The sauce is light and tart, the fish is cooked perfectly and of course tastes sweetly fresh, and the waiter willingly and deftly bones it at the table. It is a grand dish.
If you like seafood and have a taste for the exotic, China Coral will be a torment of too many choices: eel, stir-fried with garlic or braised; seven kinds of conch; snails or frog legs; squid, both fresh and dried; abalone and sea cucumber. And then there are the everyday seafoods: eight kinds of lobster; whole fish, steamed or braised; shrimp nearly two dozen ways, from steamed in lotus leaves to pan-fried in the shell.
Let's start with the variations on shrimp. That pan-fried shrimp is an interesting dish, the large shrimp cooked in a hot dry pan so that it is crusted with seasoned salt and its juices are sealed in. Sizzling Five Flavor Shrimp is likewise in the shell, salty and tangy on a bed of onions, brought to the table on a sizzling metal platter. But most interesting are the dishes made with shrimp pounded to a light and fluffy paste, fried as Crispy Shrimp Balls, wrapped in noodle dough as shrimp dumplings, topping sauteed scallops in black bean sauce or made into two spectacularly elaborate dishes -- China Coral Shrimp Crepes and Crispy Stuffed Duckling. For the duck, a whole boneless marinated and steamed duck is covered with a thick layer of shrimp paste and deep fried, then cut into strips. The combination of duck and shrimp, the crisp skin and soft shrimp paste, the dark and pale colors, all add up to a special dish. Unfortunately, China Coral underseasons its shrimp paste, so in this dish -- as well as the shrimp balls, dumplings and such -- the taste is too bland.
China Coral Shrimp Crepes are listed among main dishes, but are actually a banquet dish and make a gorgeous appetizer for a tableful of people. The shrimp paste is rolled in thin egg crepes and deep fried, then sliced. The result is pinwheels, several inches in diameter, pale pink and pale gold, with a center of salty-smoky ham and a rim of airy crust. As you eat them you dip into seasoned salt or gingered vinegar sauce. Again, if the shrimp were more flavorful the dish would be dazzling.
Other dishes are equally beautiful. Szechuan Fishroll, available as a main course with sauce or as an appetizer called Crispy Fish Rolls, looks like a big cylinder of tempura-light batter. Inside is a delicate-fleshed fish fillet rolled around julienned ham, bamboo shoots and scallions. The crackle of the batter, the steamy and fluffy fish and the crunchy savories contrast deliciously. Another grand and delicious dish is Crispy Flounder Kew, this being a whole flounder boned and its entire frame fried so crisp that you can eat the bones like potato chips. The frame forms a platter for the fillets cut bite-size and sauteed with crisp vegetables and glazed with a wash of translucent sauce. The fish is impeccably fresh and cooked just enough, and the bones are equally delectable. It is another banquet dish, a very handsome presentation. China Coral goes to a lot of bother -- to garnish its platters with carrots carved as flowers, each of them a different flower; to bring steaming cloths after messy dishes such as shrimp in the shell or whole crabs.
Speaking of the crabs, we found them excellent, the crabs plump and meaty, wine imparting a delicate flavor in the steaming and lots of ginger and scallions adding their flavor in the sauteeing. While the crabs are a main course, we have also managed to order a smaller portion as an appetizer.
For cold evenings the hot pots are worth trying, ceramic pots filled with steaming broth and combinations as familiar as lobster, shrimp and king crab or as unexpected (and delicious) as sea cucumbers, shrimp, fish lips, pork, fish tripe, scallops and chicken.
And for variety on top of variety there are the usual beef, poultry, pork, vegetable and noodle dishes, which we didn't bother with in light of all the seafoods. Amend that: we did taste an excellent Cantonese-style roast duck someone ordered to carry out, and found it crisp-skinned and plump with juiciness. And we accompanied one dinner with Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce, stems peeled, bright green, perfectly crunchy.
It all sounds too good, right? It was almost a relief to find the flaws: an excess of cornstarch in the eel with garlic, an oversalting here and there, truly dreadful and overpriced Polynesian drinks occupying a whole separate menu, a slight lack of zestiness in the Lobster in Spicy Black Bean Sauce, though the lobster not only had been carefully cooked and of wonderful flavor but had been painstakingly removed from the shell and served in generous proportion. Even given the dozen and a half dishes we tried, we only scratched the surface of the menu, so who knows what other flaws we might have unearthed (or other satisfactions).
There is no doubt that this is a very special restaurant, trying hard in the purchasing, in the kitchen and in the dining room. The service has been so solicitous that we wondered whether we were getting restaurant-critic treatment, but watching the rest of the dining room assured us that the other tables were also getting restaurant-critic treatment and that we hadn't been unmasked.
All this is in a spacious dining room, simply decorated with bamboo fans shading hanging lamps, some nice but unmemorable wall decorations and recessed ceiling lights.
Furthermore, the prices are remarkably low for the quality; $15 can buy you a meal full of many possibilities, and on our last visit the management handed out menus of family-style dinners for four or more at $10 to $12 per person that included nine dishes each, and very good choices at that.
If this is what Washington's Chinese seafood restaurants can do, let a thousand trout tanks bloom.