We've all been to scores of Chinese restaurants that look just like Om Seafood. Gaudy gold dragons competing for attention with the Buddhas that preside throughout the huge dining area. Lights bright enough to light the flight pathways into PDX. Lots of round Formica-topped tables with lazy Susans surrounded by well-behaved kids and Cantonese-speaking grandparents. And a menu that tops out over 150 items and lists squid under "Fish." In short, the Hong Kong basics.
At Om, there are a few differences. This is a roadside restaurant, and were it on the route between Chenghai and Shantou, you might see rickshaws pulled up at the entrance. Here in Portland, the restaurant is located on Southeast Powell Boulevard beside an Asian seafood store where you can pick up some of the piscine ingredients and do it yourself the next day. There's nothing like a bejeweled snapper swimming in a tank in front of you to bring out your inner chef.
Over half the menu comes from the sea, though fishaphobes can content themselves with poultry and meat. But that would be as perverse as ordering salmon at Morton's. Besides, the tanks at the entrance crammed with crustaceans will seduce you. And how can you resist the blackboard specials that on any given night may feature sea cucumber and clams in a clay pot, crab with ginger and green onion, and pepper scallops?
If there's a problem at Om Seafood, it's the homogenized brownness of the sauces that coat clams and fish and oysters in a single style. On occasion that mother-sauce seems tired, lacking the freshness a more hand-crafted sauce might lend to different dishes, and sometimes there's a tinny taste.
Some dishes out of such a vast menu--such as tilapia with preserved olives--indicate the seriousness of the restaurant's intent. You might not normally associate olives with China, but these blackish-brown cured olives, at once tart, sour and salty with a slight sweet-anise taste, often appear in Chinese banquet dishes, and at Om, they perk up the sweet and fine-textured fish.
Another excellent dish is the pepper-salted soft-shell crab, which refers to the crab's state after shedding its hard shell before growing a new one. This narrow window of diner's opportunity allows you to consume the entire crab, and Om serves it deep but lightly fried, its enticing crunch offset by a spicy ragout of peppers and onions. Soft-shelled crabs make for non-labor-intensive eating; but if you enjoy nut-cracking toil, there are several options. The best one may be a large Dungeness showered with green onions and ginger, a classic combination that, unlike a black-bean version on the menu, allows the freshness of the crab to shine through without the heavier black-bean paste masking the delicate flavor.
Several items listed as "ceramic pot" dishes actually come in metal bowls. Apparently too many clay pots have been broken, and our waiter claimed that metal retains heat longer. We ordered a combination of sea cucumber and clams--two varieties of chewy creatures bathed in a pungent garlic sauce. Cooked sea cucumbers look like slivers of shiitake mushrooms. The sea cucumber in its natural state, if rudely disturbed, will eviscerate itself--that is, eject its entire stomach and surrounding organs, only to regrow them within a few weeks. Try the dish; your own stomach will be content.
The most traditional Hong Kong fish preparation may be the simplest: a whole fish--in this case, once again tilapia--steamed to preserve its freshness with ginger and scallions. I can't get enough of this collection of harmonious ingredients, the way the ginger perfumes the sweet fish, while the scallions lend color, crunch and a sharp bite.
Of course, you need to supplement all this seafood with side dishes. Both the Chinese broccoli (leafier and more flavorful than the elder President Bush's anathema) and the ong choi (a sort of firm, stalky spinach stir-fried with garlic and oil) will yield a satisfying allotment of greens. But the star is tofu in Szechwan sauce. Braised in a hot sauce, the tofu resembles overgrown sea scallops, the interior of each piece gushing with molten creaminess. Play the tofu against the deep-fried crab and you'll have a transcendentally sensuous experience.
Om is a pleasant, lively place and its seafood is generally attractive, but one wishes for even more. When the food is at its freshest, it's inviting; when it's not, it tastes like many other ordinary places. Let's hope the kitchen will pay more attention to the homemade aspect of things, for then this will be a truly wonderful restaurant.
7632 SE Powell Blvd., 788-3128.
11:30 am-11 pm daily. Credit cards and children welcome. $$-$$$ Moderate-Expensive.
Picks: tilapia with preserved olives, steamed oysters with garlic sauce, fresh fish steamed with ginger and scallions, pepper-salted soft-shell crab, tofu with Szechwan sauce
Nice touch: seafood tank.