A few years back, spoilsports at the Center for Science in the Public Interest took some of the fun out of eating Chinese food when they calculated the nutritional value of kung pao chicken and other dishes. The calorie and fat gram counts were astronomically high.
Now, chef and restaurateur John Luen has opened an Asian restaurant in Pikesville that is dedicated to serving healthy Chinese and Japanese food. Luen, who has cooked in kitchens from Hong Kong to Nigeria, starts each dish with a prudent amount of olive oil and finishes most with a smidgen of sesame oil. That's how his restaurant, Olive and Sesame, came to be named.
There are cans of olive and sesame oil on the sleek sushi bar, one of the few nods toward Asian decor in the restaurant. The focal point of the handsome dining room, with its curved concrete wall, faux marbleized tables and chairs upholstered in muted pastel tapestry, is an oversized painting of the Greek island of Santorini.
The atmosphere seems more contemporary Mediterranean than Asian, so it wasn't wholly a surprise to find a few Mediterranean dishes on the Chinese and Japanese menu. Here, you can eat sushi and salad Nicoise, served by a polished and attentive wait staff.
Luen devised the menu because he believes people want broader choices when they go out to dinner. For those watching their weight, Luen offers his popular "Revolution Diet" dishes, prepared in bamboo steamer baskets with sauces served on the side.
For the chicken with spicy orange sauce, the "revolution" steamer held tender pieces of white-meat chicken and a gorgeous combination of fresh vegetables, from asparagus and carrots to broccoli and mushrooms. The calorie count on the menu said 295, but that had to be without the flavorful sauce. It had a gentle heat and the fragrant sweetness of orange peel.
There's no calorie count for dishes like sesame chicken or volcano shrimp, two winners with decidedly more calories. Go ahead and splurge. Pieces of boneless chicken are enveloped in golden fried batter under a thick, sweet, mahogany-colored glaze. The volcano shrimp, doused with rum and ignited tableside, is a house favorite. It has lovely depth of flavor and the right amount of spiciness, along with perfectly cooked shrimp and vegetables.
All the seafood we tried at Olive and Sesame was cooked to just the right moment: wonderfully fresh scallops and shrimp stir-fried with mussels, vegetables and fat udon noodles; and more scallops and shrimp grilled with tuna and salmon on mesclun greens, with cold steamed vegetables and a smooth balsamic vinaigrette.
Appetizers were a mixed bag. Mushroom-filled miso soup and vegetarian hot and sour soup were acceptable but unexceptional. Wasabi gave some punch to pale, open-topped shumai dumplings cupped in horseradish-flavored wrappers, and to raw and smoked salmon, tuna and firm pieces of red snapper on the appetizer sushi platter.
A starter billed as grilled tofu teriyaki actually seemed fried, not that we minded the crispy golden crust, velvety interior and buttery flavor of the tofu slices.
For dessert, don't bother with the house specialty - barely grilled banana and pineapple drizzled with chocolate and vanilla sauce. It would have been much better had the fruit been allowed to caramelize. For fun, try a Japanese ice cream sandwich in a chewy wrapper called mochi, or simply wait for a complimentary European-style cookie, fortune not included.
Olive and Sesame
1500 Reisterstown Road, Club Centre, Pikesville
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: Appetizers, $2-$6.99; entrees, $8.95-$24.95
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *
Pub Date: 11/12/98