Because so many Chinese restaurants are interchangeable it's always a pleasure to find a new one featuring something noticeably different. Taiwanese duck, perhaps, or crispy eggplant. Or, for that matter, carved doors with lion's-head knockers and leaded stained glass windows.
The latter accouterments date from a previous restaurant incarnation called Tom Jones. The massive doors, adorned with nymphs and foliage, came from England, where they would have looked right at home on a castle keep. The Renaissance-style stained glass decorates an ample bar. All of this dark, pubby Englishness is an amusing visual contrast to the place's new identity as First Wok, a Chinese restaurant -- a Chinese restaurant without a liquor license, at that.
Except for the Tom Jones holdovers, the decor is modest and unassuming, and the atmosphere restful. (Except for the too-loud "lite" radio; I've no objection to Carly Simon and Billy Joel, but commercials during dinner are obnoxious.) The personnel are willing to please, the menu looks ambitious, and someone in the kitchen is a true artist with radish roses. First Wok is, in short, the kind of new venture you can't help rooting for.
However, we didn't find the food uniformly worth cheering, although our meal began wonderfully with crab Rangoon ($4.50); inside the six crisp twists of won ton dough was a creamy heart of crab meat, perfumed with ginger.
The hot and sour soup ($1.50) was comparatively pedestrian, with a strong beef-broth flavor but not much texture or vinegar kick.
Taiwan crispy duck ($11.95), a distant relative of the Peking variety, is a novelty in Baltimore. The dish included a generous portion of neatly-sliced duck meat -- a little dry, but tasty -- surrounded by steamed white Chinese buns. Spread the buns with plum sauce, and enjoy an unusual Asian duck sandwich.
Flame volcano beef and scallops ($10.95) is one of those dishes that's more sizzle than steak -- quite literally. The stir-fried mixture is sizzled on a metal platter, than flamed at tableside. The results were pleasant but not particularly Chinese; a conventional Continental sliced beef with wine and mushroom sauce would taste much the same.
We also tried an order of crispy eggplant, because a colleague declared it to die for. We were less impressed, and found the fingers of eggplant, deep-fried in a pastry-like dough and served with a sweet sauce studded with bits of dried orange peel, more peculiar than praiseworthy.
Small slip-ups weren't enough to turn us off this nice new place, though. Every first walk (or wok) must begin with a few faltering steps.
Where: Glenmont Towers, 6920 Donachie Road, Towson (off Goucher Boulevard, behind Loch Raven Shopping Center).
Hours: Open 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sundays, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays; 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Credit Cards: MC, V.
Features: Sichuan, Hunan and Mandarin dishes.
No-smoking section? Yes.
Call: 296-1688, 296-1689.