Sea World Restaurant, Where President Lee Dines
Beth Fowler

I had asked a weird question.

Nevertheless, restaurant owner Chen Chang-o located a menu for me to study and then she explained, "Ninety-eight percent of my customers don't need a menu. They ask me what is in season and what is good. The menu is, in fact, for foreigners." And indeed, the menu items are written in both Chinese and English, but prices aren't listed because they fluctuate depending on the season and the size of the dish - small, medium or large.
What is the restaurant's specialty?

Short answer: seafood. Long answer: Cheng-o learned how to prepare seafood at her father's knee in his restaurant on Peng Hu Island. About twelve years ago, she opened Sea World in Central Kaohsiung. The only menu items lacking whiffs of sea-salt breezes from the Taiwan Strait are the beverages and desserts. Strict vegetarians should inquire if the vegetable dishes are truly meatless.

During our first course of fresh sashimi with wasabi paste hot enough to blow your shoes off via your nasal passages, Cheng-o told us the favorite dish among foreigners is grilled tuna with miso (bean paste). Reluctant to be stereotyped among the two percent of menu-readers, we ordered steamed black snapper with bitter melon and preserved soybeans, a choice which turned out to be a hit with foreigners and locals at our table. Each diner enjoyed his or her favorite bit from this dish. Some went for the tasty beans, some for the "good-for-health" melon, some for the succulent fillet, and others for the snapper's eyeballs. Our unanimous opinion of the fried seaweed was less favorable. It disintegrated on the tongue.

The oyster rolls (cylinders, actually) were coated with a crispy batter and came with catsup for dipping. Everyone liked these. The crisp-fried crab with loads of garlic was up to standard and the fried squid with green ginger was coated with a flavorful sauce. Squid can be as tender as chicken or as chewy as a rubber band. Ours was more toward the tender side. The stir-fried sea urchins with eggs imparted a pungent flavor reminiscent of fried chicken livers. Near the end of our meal, one of the many women who'd been serving us, set down small bowls of fried rice noodle with pumpkin soup. The noodles in this nearly tasteless thick soup were, unlike most that I've seen, as fat and round as ballpoint pens.

Sometime between the noodles and honeydew melon, Chang-o told us that President Lee Dung-hui frequents the restaurant. A security team precedes him and an entourage of media types follows in his wake. In addition to the food, I suspect President Lee appreciates the clean, tasteful décor of marble floors, wood-paneled walls and attractive light fixtures. Privacy is another factor, for the four-storied restaurant is comprised of many dining rooms accommodating four to eighteen people in each, and there's an area on the first floor with about a dozen smaller tables. From our dining room, we could hear otherrs reveling, but we couldn't hear the piped in music. No problem. What mattered to me was dessert.

For dessert we ate warm deep-fried taro balls, delicious but a bit heavy after a full-blown meal, and honeydew melon. Our bill for six diners who had washed down their seafood suppers with ten bottles of Taiwan draft beer was a presidential NT$5,247.

On another occasion I returned for a light lunch of seafood porridge, crisp fried small red fish and fried greens. My friend from Japan and I agreed it was good.

The only aspect that seemed out of keeping with a restaurant of this caliber was the absence of serving utensils for each serving plate. So, just as we do at home, we all used our personal chopsticks to pick food off the dishes spinning by on the revolving disc at the center of our table.

Cuisine: Peng Hu Island-style seafood
Menu: Chinese and English
Reservations: Recommended for evening meals.
No Smoking Section: No