After three meals at Saigon Seafood Harbor, I have no doubt the food can be tasty. But is it worth it? On one Friday night in July I took a few friends, two of whom were lawyers still clad in business drag. Every table was packed, and waiters in red shirts and food runners in blue rushed through the crowd hoisting huge casseroles of crab and fish. The noise neared rock-concert levels. All signs pointed toward success.
We headed to the tanks in the back to look over the live fish, man-eating-size lobsters, and geoduck clams. When the waitress told me that the rock cod, the smallest and cheapest live fish visible, cost $40 a pound, I blanched and changed the topic to the live prawns at $24 a pound. But then one friend offered to add his expense account to mine in order to get a fish. I told the server we were switching back to the cod, and asked her to weigh the liveliest (and tiniest) one to see how much it would cost. "Two and a half pounds," she announced. One hundred bucks, by far the most expensive dish I've ever ordered.
We also ordered a mixed barbecue plate, an inexpensive soup, shrimp with XO sauce, and two vegetable dishes that looked particularly interesting, though I had to fight with the waitress for ten minutes to order them. The shrimp with snow peas in their spicy, pungent sauce came first, along with a mixed barbecue plate with beautiful pork, fatty but succulent, and sweet, crisp-skinned chiu chow soya duck. Then the waitress leaned in to tell me that the kitchen was out of one of our vegetable dishes, the one she'd been trying to dissuade me from ordering because it was "too Chinese." "You have enough food," she said. I wasn't so sure.
But then the other prawns arrived -- the $24 a pound ones we had decided against. A pricey language mixup, I thought, but held my tongue when my tablemates started humming over the sweet, pink shellfish, which they eagerly peeled and dipped in a soy and chile sauce. The rest of the food soon appeared, except the soup. Everything was quite good, especially the fish, steamed until meltingly soft and showered with shaved ginger, scallions, and cilantro, but I've had just-caught cod prepared the same way around the corner at Daimo for $30 instead of $100.
Actually, $115, said the cash-register tape we received in place of a check. Looking over the numbers, I scowled, but it had taken so much work to get the attention of the waiters that I didn't challenge the charge. For a $60-a-person meal, the food proved somewhat anticlimactic and the service disappointing. Similarly priced Cantonese restaurants in San Francisco, Oakland, and the Peninsula wait on their customers hand and foot.
Our credit cards were returned along with a receipt showing English and Chinese descriptions of the items. It wasn't until I got home that I inspected it closely. Not only had we been charged $15 extra for the fish, but the dish we were told the kitchen had run out of? Still on the bill. The AWOL soup wasn't counted, but neither was the other vegetable dish we'd ordered -- that had been replaced by another vegetable dish that cost $5 more. All in all, we'd paid $25 too much, not counting the $24 prawns.
Clearly, we looked like we had money to burn and weren't bargaining as hard as we should have. But if any French bistro had given us service half as careless, I would have been just as mad. Was this the restaurant's standard practice? I needed to find out, so I went back twice, once in very casual attire and a second time with friends dressed in professional apparel.
On my second visit, a weekday, the room was much clearer. When you're not burning with resentment, Saigon Seafood Harbor is a cheery place: The walls are covered in light wood paneling and giant seafood, colorful cartoon renditions of fish and blown-up photos of crabs and lobsters. A few families clustered around tables, but more than half of the crowd was made up of couples or trios of friends, some eating off the cheap placemat menu of noodles and simple rice dishes, others splurging on oysters, prawns, and crabs.
Saigon Seafood Harbor's main menu offers a mind-boggling array of Cantonese food, not just live seafood but soups, claypots, poultry and red-meat stir-fries, and sizzling platters, with many dishes you simply don't often see translated into English. A smaller insert on the table goes even farther, listing imaginative specials like fish throat with artichokes, oysters with olive leaf, and bitter melon with beef.
This time the service was brusque but on the mark. We ordered a few simple dishes, and miscalculated -- all were cast in the same garlicky, rich tones. A thick soy-based sauce bubbled away in a hot pot with roast pork, oysters, tofu, and whole cloves of braised garlic. Green beans with turnip pickles, fragrant salt-nuggets, were stir-fried with fresh garlic and chiles. The most delicate dish was the "live frog with chili sauce," a sizzle-platter heaped with onions, red and green pepper strips, and large chunks of frog. We teased the tender, mild flesh (a cross between sea bass and chicken) from the bones, and sipped Tsing Tao to clear away the spice. Everything was fine, especially the $50 total price tag, but we spent the meal ogling the table next to us, whose diners had invested in raw oysters and crab.
So on my third trip, my friends and I made crab the centerpiece. But first I prodded the waiter for the prices of the live fish. He quoted $20 to $25 a pound for all the tanks I pointed at. Were these different species? Weekday versus weekend prices? Had all the prices been dropped since July? Or had we been taken for dupes the first time around?
Swallowing annoyance, I followed my normal strategy for Cantonese restaurants and ordered for variety -- something deep-fried and something braised, something spicy and something mild. Finally we had the experience I had hoped for. The thin batter on the salt-and-pepper scallops crackled, the mollusk meat underneath was moist and sweet, and we cleaned the plate of the crispy garlic and peppers scattered overtop. Pointedly bitter mustard greens were the perfect foil for fatty, crisp-skinned roast pork belly in a "Marchu-style" dish on the "Saigon Village Special" section of the menu. It wasn't all marvelous: We picked over the fish throats and artichokes ordered from the table card, finding that sugar peas had been substituted for the artichokes and that the slippery, bulbous throats had little flavor. But the hour we spent cracking crab legs, sucking out delicate flesh and licking the garlic-and-chile sauce from the shells, was a happy one. The waitstaff even stopped by twice to present us with fresh plates and clear away the piles of shell. Price tag: $23 per person.
These last two visits were enough to temper my anger to wary ambivalence. If you want a high-end Hong Kong-style meal, forget it. But there's much to explore here as long as you splurge only modestly. Just be prepared to do battle with your waiter. And inspect the check.