During the day, New Dong Hai is a ghost town. Although technically open for lunch, its two dining rooms remain starkly empty until long after the sun’s gone down. So don’t get discouraged if you show up midmorning to find the restaurant’s faux-rock staircase fountain gurgling away next to an unoccupied host stand. Stick around, or give a polite holler, and you’ll soon find yourself negotiating a table with front-of-house staff. Kindly persist when the manager quotes you a two-hour wait and then, visibly surprised that you’ve agreed to it, seats you fifteen minutes later.
The roomy duplex restaurant, a paean to the East China Sea (Donghai in Chinese), is home to some terrific Fujianese and Cantonese food. Standing a block west of Sunset Park’s burgeoning Eighth Avenue, the main artery of Brooklyn’s busiest Chinatown, the decade-old seafood specialist is delightfully low-key despite its massive neon awning depicting birds flying over a sunlit ocean.
It’s no wonder that New Dong Hai does its briskest business after midnight: Place settings at the large, round banquet tables — outfitted with jumbo lazy Susans — include shot glasses as well as teacups, and drinking snacks, like crunchy pickled bamboo shoots and boiled peanuts infused with five spice, are complimentary. Locals congregate to take the edge off, wrest razor clams from their oblong shells, or do both while singing in one of the upstairs karaoke rooms.
But whether you choose to dine late or early, don’t miss out on the soups, which are a highlight at any Fujianese restaurant. New Dong Hai is no exception. Regional standards include cups of celery-flecked pork broth with either meat-filled fish balls or thin-skinned pork dumplings, both popular in Fuzhou, the province’s capital. Larger bowls brim with mushroom and braised duck or hot-and-sour squid. And the kitchen goes big on eel, plunking bone-in hunks of tender fish into a spiced clear soup that blends wolfberries and fermented rice wine, an unforgettable combination.
Other selections from the restaurant’s live and fresh-caught seafood fare nearly as well. Head-on shrimp, boiled and served up with a ginger-vinegar sauce, are briny and sweet. They’re equally excellent butterflied or fried “harbor style” and served with garlic or XO sauce. Also available from the menu: jellyfish, screw clams (sea cucumber gonads), and tiny sea snails; spring the latter from their shells with toothpicks.
Fujianese cooks often lacquer their meats in intense sauces. The best of New Dong Hai’s is the sweet and tangy lychee pork (which contains no lychee, but rather refers to how the cooked meat resembles the fruit) with cauliflower. Also outstanding is the beef, seared to a pinkish medium and plated with sha cha sauce, a peppery dried seafood condiment. Short ribs and lamb chops are served sizzling on cast-iron platters, and ragged, hand-cut pork noodles are paired with sautéed pickled cabbage leaves.
With nearly two hundred dishes listed, New Dong Hai’s menu is vast, but it’s not without limitations. Chicken is scarce, the single choice being a homey, classic soup made with ginseng and black-boned silkie chickens, though duck (over rice or in casseroles) and goose (intestines and foot webbing) make solid appearances. And save some room for the plates of sliced watermelon and tang yuan — sticky rice balls coated in crushed peanuts and sugary syrup — that hit the table at meal’s end.
Arriving at ten one evening for what I considered a late dinner, my party was led past stacks of fish tanks toward the only other group of people seated — the staff’s kids, who broke from playing games on their iPads to suggest dishes and offer translation help. When one of the waitstaff told me that the restaurant stays open until 3 a.m., a young girl looked up from her game to brag, beaming, “I’ve stayed up that late before.”
New Dong Hai
5024 Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn