OCEAN GARDEN, 8739 Flower Ave., Silver Spring. 587-3833.
Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., until 10:30 p.m. Friday. Saturday noon until 10:30 p.m. Sunday noon until 10 p.m. Reservations suggested on weekends. V, MC. Prices: Appetizers $1 to $4.50, main dishes $6.50 to $13.50, fixed-price dinners $12 to $18.50. Full dinner with wine or beer, tax and tip averages less than $20 a person.
Everybody's going fishing this season, and the air is thick with mesquite smoke, while wasabi -- green Japanese horseradish paste -- is keeping our sinuses clear. Grilled fish and sushi are outdistancing burgers as the foods of '85.
We've already reviewed Potowmack Landing, Devon Bar and Grill and Perry's among the new fish houses, and we have more to go -- this week sushi, next week back to mesquite -- before we have covered what's news in seafood spots.
Ocean Garden started the way we dream of seafood restaurants starting -- from a seafood market next door. And its origins show, for the variety of fresh fish is wide and the quality high. Its baronial wood furnishings and blue-and-gold rimmed plates are European, but the sushi bar identifies the kitchen as Japanese. The enormous restaurant could use more intimacy, but it also attempts elegance, from the napkins folded into fans to the carnations on the tables. The menu stretches across the Orient, from Japan to China.
There never seems to be actually as many choices of sushi and sashimi as are on the list. What is in stock tends to be fresh and expertly made -- particularly the eel wrapped with a seaweed ribbon and sprinkled with sesame seeds. This is no showy sushi display, but the fish is good and the prices are reasonable.
The real value on the menu, though, is Ocean Garden Lobster Delight, a parade of dishes that starts with enough sushi and sashimi to serve as an appetizer for two, then goes on to tempura (decent but a little heavy on the batter and the grease) and then a lobster (steamed, broiled or stir-fried with ginger, garlic and soy sauce). Since the bulk of the menu is Chinese, I chose the stir-fry, and found that it reflected everything else I later learned about this kitchen. The flavor of the stir-fry was delectable, but it was way too salty, and indeed I later found most of the sauces for stir-fried dishes the same. The lobster meat was good, but not as wonderfully succulent as you might hope from a restaurant adjacent to a seafood market. In all, though, the dinner was a real bargain at $18.50, and could have served two people.
You may want to explore this long menu further, though. Among appetizers is a large portion of mussels with a sauce similar to the lobster's, for a mere $3.50. Oysters in season come sauced or raw on the half-shell, and clams come on the half-shell or in soup.
Main dishes center on grilled fish glazed with teriyaki sauce, crab cakes and two dozen Chinese dishes. The variety is more in the seafoods -- soft-shell crabs, crab meat, squid, scallops, fin fish -- than in the preparations, because several dishes wore the same dark brown soy-garlic-ginger combination. The squid was excellent; the cherrystone clams saut,eed in the shell were chewy but of fine flavor, but they were awfully similar to the mussels. Even the soft-shell crabs, though they had been stir-fried with mushrooms and scallions, bore a familiar dark, glossy sauce -- again with soy, ginger and garlic and again too salty.
To assure variety, limit yourself to one stir-fried seafood and contrast that with a yakitori, the fish nicely grilled and impeccably fresh. Or try a Fresh Fried Whole Fish -- in our case, rockfish -- quickly slashed and deep-fried so that the surface is crisp and the meat juicy. The only problem is that its sweet-and-sour sauce is alarmingly red, quite sweet and vinegary, and utterly drowns the taste of the fish. Perhaps you can get it on the side or ask for another sauce. Pan Fried Whole Flounder, though, was a disappointment, for the frying fat had not been hot enough to crisp the frame sufficiently. The fish flesh was delicious, but its sauce was pallid and greasy. Saucemaking is not a subtle art here, though fish-buying is.
Two dishes that stray from the oriental mode are Steamed Bay Crab and crab cakes, the latter served as part of an entire meal with soup, appetizer, salad, rice, tea and dessert. Skip the crab cakes; they are compact, chewy and bland. The steamed crab, however, is an interesting surprise of three glass crab-shaped dishes mounded with snowy lumps of crab delicately seasoned with -- of course -- garlic and ginger. It holds together to form what might be considered a steamed crab cake.
The menu has few frills. The wines are indifferent carafe wines and the three meat dishes on the menu are sweet and sour pork, steamed vegetable stuffed with ground meat and stuffed beef saut,eed in wine sauce. Dessert consists of oranges carved into rabbit shapes and melon cubes, and it seems to come automatically.
This is a restaurant that tries to be elegant, with carved turnips and lettuce leaves garnishing nearly everything. Main dishes are accompanied by an odd tomato-pink rice that tastes more Spanish than Oriental and is not very good. But if it is a little clumsy in balancing the menu or in service, it still does far more than we have grown to expect at such prices. Friendly service, large portions and very good fish leave you feeling that any complaints you might have are minor in the whole scheme of things.