The Same Restaurant Twice

Seafood Palace
2523 Nicollet Ave., Mpls., (612) 874-7721
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. daily

Last October departing Village Voice art critic Peter Schjeldahl bid an admiring farewell to his weekly forum: "I'm fascinated by the column form in general. It is a rhetorical gizmo as compact and flexible as the sonnet or the sonata and a lot more supported by present-day culture. If journalism is history written by flashes of lightning, the column may be the literary equivalent of a roving flashlight." So I cut that out and stuck it to my computer monitor, and ever since I've pictured myself, week after week, poking my flashlight into some corner, reporting back on what I find, and moving on.

It's a pleasant way to live. I don't just find meals, I find history. I find darlings, I find weirdos, I find unimaginable stories, and sometimes I find stone-cold paradoxes. Case in point: Seafood Palace. If you had asked me what I thought of the place before I trained my flashlight on it, I would have said it was pretty great--an opinion I would have based entirely on quiet, nonreview meals over the years, usually a hot and sour soup and something off the specials board. Now, having probed and poked and prodded and put the kitchen through the paces, I can report authoritatively that Seafood Palace serves alternately truly wonderful and just plain terrible dishes, often at the same meal--and often their best offerings have nothing whatsoever to do with sea life.

On my first visit, a late, lazy weekend lunch, I brought a trio of friends and we began with a family-style serving of chicken velvet soup, a silky, mellow variation on egg drop soup made with sweet niblets of corn and little poached pieces of chicken. It was swell, especially at only $5.95 for four or five people.

I had brought a friend who flits around the globe from one fried chicken to the next like a monarch butterfly that skips the rose gardens to feast on milkweed at the roadside. So we ordered the special of Cantonese fried chicken ($7.75 half, $15 whole), and it was fantastic--really. Slices of on-the-bone chicken cut straight through and arranged sort of like a sliced loaf of bread arrived on a large platter covered with warm pink, white, and green shrimp chips (generally like Fritos, but made of a ground shrimp mixture instead of corn), accompanied by a little bowl of mixed salt and pepper to sprinkle on the chicken. It was tender, it was moist, it was crispy and a little sweet--if you have any interest whatsoever in fried chicken, add this one to your list. We were also thrilled with the lobster special ($14.95), in which the deep-fried, hacked-up crustacean was perfectly complemented by slices of whole ginger in the white ginger-scallion sauce.

Yet the same meal featured three dishes that were just wretched. String beans in black bean sauce ($5.75) were ice-cold in places, making me suspect they had been parboiled and then later cooked with the sauce; in any event they were wrinkled, squishy, and exhausted. Eggplant with garlic sauce ($6.95) was nearly inedible--goopy, bitter, and viscous, the taste and texture of a past-ripe vegetable. The hot and spicy shrimp ($10.95) had been cooked into tight, rubbery knots, and tossed with neatly trimmed vegetables that looked suspiciously well-manicured and tasted like they'd come from a frozen mix.

Overall, it was very strange. Restaurants usually don't hit only home runs or--what would be the opposite? At-bats where they catch the ball and walk off with it and refuse to play? While puzzling over this question, I enjoyed the bubble-gum-pink décor, the crabs frisking in the aquariums, and the etched-glass art of a smiling lobster serving up a bowl of crabs that adorns the nonsmoking room. I was more curious than usual to find out what the next visit would bring.

Be careful what you wish for--two weeks later saw a meal that was very nearly a complete disaster. Three plates arrived bearing either mealy shrimp or crab with the ammoniac reek that clearly warns of past-prime ocean life--causing a panic at the table that prevented anyone from enjoying any part of the meal. The rest of the dinner didn't make up for the seafood scare: Singapore mai fun noodles ($8.50) were greasy and underseasoned, and the beef with sha-cha sauce ($8.95) on a sizzling platter was bland as Steak-umms in gravy. The only decent dishes were sautéed watercress with chopped garlic, a nicely bitter bowl of greens ($7.25), and a special of baked fresh mushrooms served with lots of little heads of bok choy ($9.95)--very plain, but good.

It was with great trepidation that I returned to the restaurant a week later; yet this time, nearly everything was marvelous. Hot and sour soup was just as I remembered it, peppery and chewy, crammed full of good stuff--cabbage, mushrooms, fatty pork. Another wild-card pick off the regular menu struck gold: Salt-baked spicy pork chops ($9.50) turned out to be slices of pork in a salty batter cooked in a way that created a divine fried texture, but also integrated a smattering of moist minced garlic and was nearly oil-free--as popcorn shrimp are to shrimp, this was to pork, an unforgettable dish. Baby clams in black bean sauce ($10.95) were equally appealing, a giant heap of little steamers tossed with a garlic-laced sauce, each one tender as pudding. Orange-flavored beef ($8.95) was good, though nothing spectacular, slices of sweet and bitter orange zest nicely enlivening the beef in a brown sauce.

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