An appealing variety proves Little Things Mean a Lot

Restaurant: Niwana's Japanese-Korean cuisine is highly flavored or quite delicate, nicely garnished and presented. But service is just too fast.

February 07, 1999|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

For college students, sushi is the pizza of the '90s.

Of course, pizza is also the pizza of the '90s, so there may be some flaw in my reasoning here. But I still think the new Japanese-Korean restaurant Niwana will succeed where a pizza place didn't, across the street from the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus.

Niwana opened recently after major renovations. The restaurant isn't fancy, but behind the long bar is a lower-level dining room with blond-wood furniture and muted colors. It's fresh- looking and soothing.

The young staff is so nice and friendly that I debated about those stars, or lack thereof, for service. But on two separate visits our food was brought to the table as fast as it was prepared, so we couldn't, for instance, enjoy the soup because our main courses were cooling on the table in front of us. No other customers were waiting for our table, but it felt like it.

At the end of the meal, the manager came around and cleared our dirty dishes by dumping them in a plastic dishpan. It was efficient, but not very attractive.

All that can be easily fixed, and by the time you get there, it probably will be. So on to what's good about Niwana:

Dinner here starts with four little dishes, brought to the table with drinks, which change from night to night. There's always kimchi, the fiery Korean condiment, and perhaps an Asian version of slaw or cold noodles or spicy greens or sliced potatoes in a slightly sweet, soy-based sauce.

These are mere nibbles, though. You should order appetizers as well. We liked two in particular: Niwana's plump little fried dumplings and noodles stir-fried with bits of beef and vegetables in a sesame-scented sauce.

You could have a delicate little salad of raw fish, seaweed and a tangy vinegar sauce. For those who don't eat raw fish, the sushi chef makes a soft crab roll with a bit of spicy mayonnaise, and the ever-popular California roll with crab and avocado -- both decent.

If you like spicy food, Niwana's Korean dishes are the way to go. A bowl of warm rice and shredded lettuce with raw fish arranged on top comes with chili paste on the side; you add it according to your tolerance for heat and eat the salad with a large spoon. The interplay of textures and temperatures is fascinating.

Pork in spicy sauce is not for the faint of heart; but if you can take the heat, there are layers of flavor under the fire. It came with rice, prettily garnished with white and black sesame seeds, and a cold salad of cooked greens.

Niwana's "dinner boxes" are black and red lacquered boxes with little compartments filled with California rolls, a salad of greens or cold noodles, rice and your choice of main course. The nice thing about any of the dinner boxes is that you get lots of variety for a small price.

Don't make the mistake of getting tempura as the main course; on two different occasions the batter on the shrimp and vegetables was thick, pale and soggy. A better choice would be the teriyaki, made with tender pieces of chicken.

I would skip dessert here. "Japanese sweets," for instance, look like triangles of jellied liver garnished with a maraschino cherry and a cucumber. They have a bland, slightly sweet flavor.

Green tea ice cream, with its pale color and delicate flavor, would be fine alone, but it's encased in a ball of pale-green rice cake, which tasted like Styrofoam. The garnish of whipped cream and a maraschino cherry didn't help.

You could get a slice of chocolate cake or apple pie, not made on the premises, but you'd do better simply to finish your meal with a cup of green tea.

NIWANA

Food: ***

Service: **

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 3 E. 33rd St.

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday

Prices: Appetizers: $2.95-$5.95; entrees: $7.95-$12.95

Call: 410-366-4115

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 02/07/99

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