By Suzanne Parker
An invitation to “play tonsil hockey with a tentacle or two” doesn’t come along every day. When one arrived to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the Gastronauts, an online club for adventurous eaters, with a Korean banquet featuring live octopus and lobster at East Seafood Restaurant in Flushing, we didn’t hesitate.
The Gastronauts’ Web site declares, “We explore the astounding variety of global cuisines in this great city. With like-minded friends, we’ll taste the weird items in small print at the bottom of the menu that other folks eat everyday in Manila, Lagos, Bangkok, or Lima — stuff you’d never order alone. We arrange custom-made tasting menus of the rare and bizarre at local restaurants, secret spots, potluck dinners, and the occasional special event. There is also drinking … lots of drinking.”
The scene of the crime, East Seafood Restaurant, looked like a Korean high school cafeteria that had been invaded by about 50 Gen-Xers. The brightly lit basement room was filled with rows of long mess-hall tables with fish tanks and a sushi station off to one side. Gastro-alumni greeted each other effusively, consulting excitedly over the feats of gustatory derring-do about to be performed.
In sharp contrast to the dismal surroundings, each table was laid with beautifully arranged platters of sushi rolls and a sesame-dressed Korean salad. This was only the introduction to a relentless procession of dishes.
It started slowly. First a sizzling platter of garlicky grilled shrimp, and some spicy mussels with a scoop of mashed pumpkin appeared. In rapid succession, mildly sweet udon noodles with vegetables and bland bowls of jook, the rice gruel beloved by Koreans, arrived. The table tore into a whole fried crispy fish of indeterminate species and slurped down fresh raw oysters. Ensuing platters of gigantic tempuraed shrimp and peculiar beef and pork burgers kept the momentum going. All the while, prodigious quantities of Korean beer and soju (a Korean vodka-like spirit) flowed.
Getting closer to the main event, a selection of kimchi (spicy pickled vegetables) arrived, followed closely by an array of sashimi, including such exotica as sea squirt, sea cucumber, abalone and sea urchin, along with the more familiar things aquatic, like salmon and tuna. The sea squirt was the least accessible of the bunch, being extremely iodiney and bitter. Folks in the know say that those are the very qualities this creature is prized for, giving the mouth a tingling, numb sensation similar to cloves. Definitely not for everybody. The uni (sea urchin), fresh from the tank, was like pâté of the sea.
In a seeming nod to American cuisine, whole, steamed, sweet-fleshed lobsters were next to make an appearance, accompanied by baked potatoes with garlic-laced drawn butter. This may be regarded as an exotic foreign dish by East Seafood regulars, but was soothingly familiar to us.
Finally, the stir in the air foretold that the creature feature was about to begin. Galaxies of digital-camera flashes erupted as the live octopi were lifted out of their tanks. The critters were brought to the tables wriggling their tentacles in protest. At tableside, the servers snipped off the tentacles onto platters, where they continued their undulations.
Diners dug in with their chopsticks, having to fight and pry the morsels, which tried to suction themselves onto the platter. With some trepidation, we sampled a section. The taste was a slightly briny, more or less generic, raw seafood flavor. The texture was chewy, very chewy. The big draw was having something moving around in your mouth without the aid of your teeth and tongue.
We can’t say that we’re eager to repeat the experience. We soothed our conscience by remembering that octopi aren’t vertebrates.
The octopus was followed, rather anticlimactically, by live lobster. The flailing beasts were brought to the table to have their tails severed and the meat portioned while their hapless front ends exercised their extremities. The front ends were then removed from the table to be steamed and returned. Unlike the octopus, the raw tail meat was completely immobile. It was merely extremely fresh lobster sushi. It tasted like cold, wet, soft lobster meat. Same flavor, different texture than steamed.
As is customary at many Asian tables, the banquet ended with soup — an appealing fish chowder in this case. The evening drew to a close, more like a crowd dispersing at a sporting event than a meal ending.
The Bottom Line
With its live tanks, East Seafood Restaurant serves some of the freshest sushi, fish and seafood you’re likely to find. If things wiggling around in your mouth don’t appeal to you, you can stick to their more conventional offerings, and possibly enjoy (or not) the vicarious thrill of others tearing into tentacles.
Membership in the Gastronauts is free and open to all. Members receive a monthly e-mail announcing an upcoming, prearranged meal. An e-mailed RSVP and subsequent confirmation is what it takes to secure a place at the table. Participants must pay in cash for their meal. For further details visit www.gastronauts.net.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
East Seafood Restaurant
150-60 Northern Blvd.
Flushing, NY 11354
Price Range: Lunch special $10.99/dinner special $14.99; Seafood or fish entrees $9.99-$25.99; A la carte sushi/sashimi $2-$10.99; Live seafood $25-$35.
Cuisine: Korean-style seafood
Service: Efficient, accommodating, limited English
Hours: Lunch & dinner every day
Reservations: Communication may be difficult if you don’t speak Korean
Alcohol: Beer, sake, soju
Children: The food may scare them
Credit Cards: Yes
Noise Level: Average
Handicap Accessible: Yes