A sequel that succeeds on its own terms

Restaurant: Fells Point's Kawasaki Cafe is even better than its parent on North Charles Street.

Sunday Gourmet

February 27, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Most sequels aren't as good as the original. But the new Kawasaki Cafe in Fells Point is even better than Kawasaki, the excellent Japanese restaurant on North Charles Street.

Of course, better is a relative term -- especially among restaurants. Still, the cafe is younger and hipper than its parent, and more user-friendly. In fact, the staff is incredibly friendly, period. They greet you with a cheery hello when you walk in. They're happy to explain anything on the menu you don't quite understand. They pretend not to notice if a mushroom wiggles away from your chopsticks. You're going to love this place.

About the only thing you're not going to love is the seats with no backs. You sit on chic cubes of highly varnished knotty pine, which look great in the minimalist space but aren't real comfortable.

And you won't love the parking -- or rather the lack of parking.

Oh, well. If anything can make you forget about the seats and the parking problem, it's the food.

The owners realize that Americans love the tastes and rituals of sushi but may worry about eating raw fish. So they divide their maki rolls into "cooked," "raw" and "vegetable." (Maki rolls are rice, fish and other ingredients formed into a seaweed-wrapped cylinder and sliced.) There are plenty of choices in each category. From the 14 cooked selections, for instance, you could get a "crunch" roll made with smoked salmon, smoked eel and avocado. An edge of the rice is fried to give the roll the eponymous bit of crunch -- the combination of flavors and textures is fabulous.

Or start with something as simple as the Kawasaki Cafe's avocado salad, a lusciously ripe avocado peeled and halved, with one half left whole and the other sliced paper-thin and arranged in a fan around the whole half. Drizzled with a Japanese version of vinaigrette and garnished with parsley and a carrot rose, the salad is quietly glorious.

If you want a more substantial appetizer, the kitchen makes as fine a tempura as I've had anywhere, with delicate, golden beads of crisply fried batter lightly coating the fresh vegetables and gigantic shrimp.

Decisions, decisions. If you start with the crunch roll, the tempura or the avocado salad, you might miss the Chef's Choice yaki (grilled) appetizer. As with all of Kawasaki Cafe's food, you have to take a few moments to admire the artistry of the dish before you start in on the five small skewers. The night we were there, one was strung with pieces of tender-crisp asparagus wrapped in bacon and grilled. Another, small bites of sweet scallops. The other three skewers were grilled baby okra (wow!), small pink shrimp, and tidbits of chicken alternated with slivers of onion.

You can get skewers of any one of these alone, as well as many other choices, such as squid, pork with ginger, and shiitake mushroom.

Grilled items are one specialty of the cafe; the other is noodle dishes. This time of year, these steaming one-bowl meals of noodles, broth, vegetables and meat or seafood are particularly appealing. My favorite are the fat udon noodles in a delicate broth with seafood, seaweed and scallions.

Vegetarians might try udon with the poetically named "sweetened tofu bag with scallion," which to me tastes a bit like triangles of sweetened sponge with scallion, but I'm not much of a tofu enthusiast.

You can also get either udon or soba, the thinner buckwheat noodles, stir-fried with various meats and vegetables. Least interesting are the ramen noodles, which come in several different broths with seaweed and one handsome mushroom cap.

My advice is to skip dessert. A culture that garnishes sweets with carrot roses and parsley isn't really interested in the concept. In fact, a meal in Japan might more typically end with fresh fruit; but that doesn't seem to be an option at the Kawasaki Cafe.

Your choices are yokan, quivering triangles of dense, sweetened red bean gelatin, or dough-covered ice cream you eat with your fingers. Maybe you should just have another cup of green tea.

KAWASAKI CAFE

Food: *** 1/2

Service: *** 1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 907 S. Ann St.

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $2-10; main courses, $5.50-$15

Call: 410-327-9400

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

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