Dazzling variety, uneven quality

March 01, 2001|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

IF YOU can't find something you'd like to try at Imperial Gourmet's all-you-can-eat buffet, chances are you're not hungry.

The new restaurant that's taken over what used to be the Carney Crab House claims to have more than 130 entrees, appetizers and desserts. My dining companion and I could count only about 70, but we did not include a serving area in the back where chefs prepare special orders.

Owner Danny Chen says that offerings at his international buffet will change daily. He defines international as primarily Chinese, Japanese, Italian and American.

The night we went, the vast majority of choices were Asian - Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

The only apparent nods to other cuisines were "Russian-style" salmon, a dry piece of fish swimming in a thin sauce; apple pie that was more of a cobbler; chicken nuggets; and a delicious, French-influenced dish of perfectly cooked shrimp with toasted walnuts in cream sauce that merited a return trip to the buffet.

Imperial does a fine job of cooking massive amounts of food well and keeping it hot. The bright-green sugar snap peas hadn't had the snap cooked out of them. Bamboo baskets stayed filled with steaming dim sum dumplings and buns of minced pork or a grainy, dark, sweet lotus paste. Noodles got just the right amount of attention; the vermicelli used in a house special noodle dish stood on its own as a firm base for slivers of pork, chicken and stir-fried carrots. The creamy white filling in bite-sized crab-cheese wontons had the right amount of crab. And the heat in the kimchi accented rather than overwhelmed the crisp cabbage.

However, things are bound to fail in any endeavor that tries to be all things to all people. Sushi rice was far too gelatinous, thus drowning out whatever it wrapped. Spring rolls bordered on the greasy side. What was labeled peanut chicken lacked any peanut taste. An appetizing-looking, golden-brown "Chinese donut" tasted like deep-fried white bread.

The mostly Asian staff was very attentive but somewhat hampered by a language barrier. We thought we'd been successful in requesting sushi without any seafood and then discovered that we'd been steered toward sushi loaded with tiny shrimp.

Disappointments aside, Imperial's variety is especially appealing to people with children. During our dinner, kids trooped back and forth, bearing plates piled with steamed shrimp, egg rolls, peaches in syrup and chocolate pudding (not always in that order, either).

The restaurant is also a good place for groups, because of the number of large tables lined up in the two no-frills dining rooms.

Chen says he's about to open a second restaurant downstairs from the buffet. The menu here will feature Chinese and Japanese food, served in a candle-lighted atmosphere adjacent to a sushi bar. And a dance floor. And a karaoke stage.

So if you're hungry for entertainment as well as all manner of food, Imperial's eclectic mix might be the best option around.

Imperial Gourmet

2014 E. Joppa Road, Carney

410-655-8500

Hours: Open 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily

Prices: Lunch and dinner during the week are $6.95 and $12.95, respectively. On weekends, $8.95 and $14.95

Credit cards: All major cards

Food: **1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** Ratings system: Outstanding ****; Good ***; Fair/uneven **; Poor *

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