Inside this slow, noisy wave - superb food

Restaurant: The popular Tsunami is both a test and a treat.

Sunday Gourmet

April 23, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

I couldn't understand why you'd name a restaurant Tsunami until I actually ate there. If you're young and hip, you'd describe this as a high-energy restaurant. Everyone else: This must be what it's like to eat in a tidal wave.

The food itself has a certain Zen-like quality to it, and it's fabulous. Picture scallops, slightly charred but still plump and moist, arranged on a square white plate with Japanese artfulness. Showcasing them is a blush-colored, faintly fruity papaya sauce fragrant with basil. Individual rose petals decorate the edges of the plate. You want to admire the dish quietly before you eat every last smidgen.

However, "quietly" is not an option here. Because the food is so good, every table and every stool is taken in this Pacific Rim grill and bar on a Wednesday night. The room is small, the bar is large, the floors are tile, the ceiling is devoid of soundproofing and there is very little fabric anywhere in the stylized Asian room with its dark blue walls. There is music, of which you can hear only the bass thrumming deeply in the background. Everyone is talking louder than everyone else. A tsunami of sound.

We walked out in a state of shock three hours later. And that's the other bad news. Our waitress was an oasis of calm and as attentive as she could be, but she couldn't do anything to hurry the kitchen. The wait was extraordinary. Only the fact that the food was so good made it bearable.

Nothing made the noise bearable.

I would have given the food four stars except that the wok-seared pepper tenderloin with honey balsamic syrup and horseradish oil, ordered medium, came well-done. Still, the fat filet was a handsome piece of meat, the sweet-sour flavors of its sauce subtle. And I loved the frizzle of fried onions that decorated it.

Even something as simple as a green salad is very fine here. Lacy rings of carrot and fresh beet decorate the greens in an explosion of color. Ginger gives the vinaigrette extra zing.

If you're not adventuresome about your food, you might start with plump oysters encrusted in a crunchy golden batter touched with curry. They lie in a delicate pool of perfectly executed beurre blanc.

Or have the crisp spring rolls, filled with large chunks of shrimp. Sliced into rounds and arranged on the plate as artfully as sushi, they come with a salty-sweet sake and hoisin dip, more intriguing than the usual duck sauce.

For a main course, Tsunami's crab cakes would be universally appealing. The pleasingly irregular mounds are made from lump crab meat and a fine combination of seasonings and binder. A two-toned sauce balances the yin of chili paste with the yang of lime and wasabi.

Good as the crab cakes are, they don't outshine the kataifi tiger prawns, enormous shrimp coated in spiky golden crunchiness. They rest on a corn and tomato salsa almost casually strewn with backfin crab meat.

Desserts have as much flair as the rest of the menu, but the simplest is the best. Mango sorbet with raspberries is wonderfully flavorful, a refreshing ending to a substantial meal. Other choices combine East and West, sometimes with great success. Cross bananas Foster with a spring roll and you get a luscious, hot, crisp-shelled banana with ice cream and a brown sugar-ginger sauce. But a poached Asian pear with chocolate sauce -- Tsunami's version of poire Helene -- needs ice cream to be perfect.

Still, even when Tsunami's food isn't perfect, it's pretty darn good. Too bad you have to have the patience of Job and be either hard of hearing or under 30 to enjoy it fully. Such is the price of success.

TSUNAMI

Food: *** 1/2

Service: **

Atmosphere: **

Where: 51 West St., Annapolis

Hours: Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$9; main courses, $14-$25

Call: 410-990-9868

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

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