Chinese Fare, American-style

DINING OUT

March 15, 1992|By ELIZABETH LARGE

The dish that epitomizes Joey Chiu's Greenspring Inn for me is a house specialty: broiled sirloin steak, served with sauteed snow peas and fried rice, for $17.95. The large cut of prime-quality beef comes charred and rare, sliced through to save you the trouble of cutting it yourself and handsomely arranged with the snow peas and rice. It's about as Chinese as the restaurant's name itself, or the Key lime cheesecake offered for dessert. But with -- say -- bowls of hot and sour soup as a first course, it would make a fine dinner for two.

My point is that in the newest of his three Baltimore-area restaurants, Mr. Chiu has outdone himself with what he does best: offering the kind of food Americans love with an Oriental accent to it -- and offering that food in swanky, comfortable, have-a-glass-of-chardonnay-with-your-egg-rolls surroundings. What really makes it all work, though, is that Mr. Chiu has assembled a staff that's as pleasant as it is attentive, as nice as you'd find in that homely little neighborhood spot where you get your carryout egg foo yong Friday nights.

When his Bamboo House opened in Cockeysville in 1974, Baltimoreans had never seen anything like it. What? -- a highly designed dining room with no red or dragons or Chinese lanterns? What? -- they charge for tea and serve salads with dinner? The second Bamboo House, which opened in Harborplace in 1983, followed much the same formula. Customers were clearly willing to pay well for good American-Chinese food in luxury surroundings.

Mr. Chiu opened his third restaurant about six months ago, in what had been a private club just off the Beltway on Falls Road. Don't let the dowdy exterior fool you. Part of the club was sold off to a bank, part to a jewelry store. Then a bridge was built over the stream in the back. It leads into the handsome addition that houses the entrance, bar and one of several dining rooms. Nothing about the decor suggests that this is an Asian restaurant except for one enormous porcelain vase near the entrance. The colors throughout are peach, salmon and green. Deep green walls are hung with contemporary paintings; the back dining room has a huge crystal chandelier and an expanse of mirrors.

As for the food itself, I don't mean to suggest you can't get authentic Chinese dishes here. Hunan squids with hot pepper sauce and duck home style are on the menu along with house specialties like the Maryland crab cake and broiled lobster tails.

The Greenspring Inn does classic appetizers well. A suave hot and sour soup ($2.50) proved to be a beautifully balanced, tangy-hot concoction. While there were only four pan-fried meat dumplings ($3.25), each one was about as big as my fist, with a lively ground pork filling. A first-course chicken teriyaki ($4.75) had enough skewered chicken and vegetables to serve as a main course, and the delicate, only slightly sweet sauce pleased us all.

Prices -- as you may have noticed already -- are high, with most main dishes over $10 and many closer to $20. For that you get quality ingredients (with one exception: the imitation "crab sticks") and dishes that are generous enough to serve two. The Greenspring special ($18.95) is typical. A large white platter overflowed with two prettily arranged groups of seafood. On one side, big chunks of lobster, "crab sticks" and scallops lay tossed with snow peas in a mild white sauce. On the other, fat shrimp curled in a spicy sweet, tomato-based sauce.

Another specialty paired boneless duck with chili-sparked orange sauce ($10.95) -- a sort of duck a l'orange Chinese style. Both choices were good without being flawless. Thick, though flavorful, sauces dominated. In the one dish, the lobster was, for some reason, cold. In the other, the duck was fatty. A third, less ambitious selection -- Hunan beef ($11.50) -- was the best of the three in some ways, with its sharply seasoned brown sauce, exceptional beef and just-tender vegetables.

It's something of a surprise, perhaps, for a restaurant as large and ambitious as the Greenspring Inn to open with the economy in such bad shape. But Mr. Chiu is a savvy businessman, and my guess is it will be a success. The location is great, just off the Beltway. Plenty of people seem willing to pay the higher-than-usual prices for Chinese food; and the Greenspring Inn should fill at least part of the void left in the area by the old Pimlico Restaurant (which served both American and Chinese food).

Greenspring Inn, 10801 Falls Road, Lutherville, (410) 823-1125. Open every day for lunch and dinner. AE,MC,V. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair access: yes.Next: Brunch at Hampton's

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