Nichi Bei Kai can satisfy both adventurous and timid palates

March 15, 1991|By Lynn Williams | Lynn Williams,Sun Restaurant Critic

The John Eager Howard Room and the Owl Bar -- dining-rooms-away-from-home to many of the celebrities and literati to pass through Baltimore -- are dark now, and former patrons of the 13th floor bar have had to get their fix of lounge pianists and supThe John Eager Howard Room and the Owl Bar -- dining-rooms-away-from-home to many of the celebrities and literati to pass through Baltimore -- are dark now, and former patrons of the 13th floor bar have had to get their fix of lounge pianists and superb city views somewhere else. All of these victims of the Belvedere Hotel's fall from fortune are worth a tear or two for the memories they served us, if not for the food.

Don't include Nichi Bei Kai among those to be mourned, however. Baltimore's pioneering Japanese restaurant on the Belvedere's lower level is still, so to speak, cooking.

Nichi seems never to change much: The dining room is still dimly lighted, cool and unassuming, the waitresses reserved and unsmiling. The big difference is in the fact that the hibachi cuisine -- which is the house specialty and which used to be the ne plus ultra of showy, exotic dining -- now seems almost quaint.

Nichi Bei Kai has played it smart, though, by allowing us both the Westernized teppan style, with its fancy knifemanship and familiar flavors, and more challenging Japanese dishes, including great sushi. In other words, if you love sea urchin with raw quail egg, and happen to be dining with someone who is profoundly suspicious of the very idea of Japanese food, this is one restaurant that will satisfy both of you.

The preparation of the hibachi chicken ($15.95) proved, for our jaded palates at least, more interesting than its taste. As the chef whirled his knife with blitzkrieg speed and graceful efficiency, a tray full of raw ingredients -- chicken breasts, mushrooms, bean sprouts -- were transformed into dancing morsels on the hot griddle. The results looked tempting but were bland, and needed an infusion of soy sauce to give the dish some zip.

This meal came with three excellent shrimp, also sizzled on the hibachi; rice; a pallid Asian onion soup, and an iceberg lettuce salad that was redeemed by a zesty sesame dressing.

More demanding palates might enjoy the unagi-teisha ($19.95), rice topped with eel in a sweet-savory teriyaki marinade. The price was excessive, but the eel tasted like the kind of delicacy that deserves a substantial price tag; the taste of eel is supernally rich, with an incomparable flavor. To its credit, the dinner also came with several extras, including two specialties filled with the tang of the sea: a fine miso soup, and a slippery salad called tsuki--i, which involved seaweed and deliciously fresh clam and octopus. It's not for everyone, but if all of those other someones can gorge themselves on steak or lobster hot from the hibachi, who's to care that you're nibbling happily on a tentacle?

Nichi Bei Kai

Where: Belvedere Hotel, Charles and Chase streets.

Hours: Open for dinner 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sundays, 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays.

Credit Cards: AE, D, DC, MC, V.

Features: Japanese food.

Non-smoking section? No.

Call: 685-0780.

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