Where: Pratt St. Pavilion, Harborplace
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays, noon to 11 p.m. Saturdays, and noon to 10 p.m. Sundays
Credit Cards: AE, DC, MC, V
Features: Chinese and Japanese food
No-smoking section? No, but staff will try to seat non-smokers away from smokers
*** In any city with an abundance of Chinese restaurants, a clever restaurateur needs a gimmick or two to stand out from the pack. And the Bamboo House has more than its share of attractions.
Most important, of course, is the Harborplace location; at least some of the restaurant's high public profile and positive critical ranking can certainly be traced to the charisma of its waterfront view. There's also the glamour of the decor: mauve, purple and candle-lit, with gilded touches of the Orient. What will really make diners take notice, though, is the new sushi bar. The combination of Chinese and Japanese cuisines can be enjoyed at a few other places in town, of course, but as spring fever takes hold, the lure of eating sushi in a ravishly pretty waterside room is near-irresistible.
We didn't try the sushi this time, but we did sample a tempura assortment ($4.95): shrimp, broccoli, carrot and sweet potato in a pale, crunchy, ethereally light batter. The shrimp were large and luxurious, but the real surprise was the carrot, which tasted more vibrant than a humble root vegetable should.
Savory Chinese pan-fried meat dumplings ($3.50) and soothing chicken corn soup ($1.95) offered a hint of other cultures -- the dumplings were reminiscent of Ukrainian pierogis, and the soup was very close to soups I've tasted in Pennsylvania Dutch country -- but were given a particularly Asian stamp by elements such as the dumplings' soy-and-scallion dipping sauce and the silken swirl of egg-drop in the soup.
It was especially nice that for our first meal out in April we were able to have asparagus. (Although, alas, soft shell crabs have not yet arrived.) The tenderly crunchy cross-cut spears were lightly sauteed and tossed with shrimp, chicken breast pieces and beef in a spicy brown sauce ($14.95), which despite its fire had a mellow beef-stock flavor. Not a stunningly original dish, but a satisfying taste of early spring.
My companion's double-cooked pork with hot peppers ($10.25) featured a different brand of hot sauce, sharper and more gingery but hardly incendiary. The pork pieces were well-cooked and only a little fatty, and the accompanying green peppers, cabbage, scallions and bean curd provided textural variety and flavor contrasts that took this dish beyond the usual stir-fry.
We passed on dessert -- ice cream seems silly in an Oriental context, and does anybody really crave lychees? But we did enjoy our fortune cookies, one of which promised "thrilling" events to come. While the meal we'd just finished didn't quite rate these superlatives, it was enjoyable in every way. Next time, we'll see if the sushi provides some thrills.