JAPANESE food sneaks up on you. It sounds so light, so full of vegetables and clear liquids. So you order a little sushi, a few steamed dumplings, miso soup, something tempura and suddenly, you're loosening your belt a notch or three to ease the pressure.
The food at Maki Maki in Towson is no exception. There are so many tempting things on the menu, and they're served in such relaxed surroundings that you may be tempted to linger over several courses. Especially if you can snag a seat on the squishy green velvet couch facing the front windows.
Dong and Jamie Choi opened the restaurant in February in the space on Allegheny Avenue that used to be Donna's. While the Chois are from Korea, they adhere to the Japanese culinary mantra that presentation is as important as taste.
A row of half-moon-shaped gyoza (delicious steamed dumplings filled with ground beef, pork and clear noodles) was laid out on a pale-green rectangular plate garnished with a carrot rose. A similar plate surfaced laden with four small green-bean pancakes, a Korean dish made of green-bean flour or powder, tiny slivers of onion and red peppers.
Soy sauce accompanied both those appetizers, but we thought they possessed more than enough flavor on their own.
We did not think the same of the vegetable tempura. The golden batter overwhelmed every vegetable covered, except for carrots and peapods. We also expected a stronger showing from the shitake mushrooms used in a sushi roll, but their distinctive flavor was hardly noticeable.
Maki Maki's miso soup is better than average, loaded with chopped scallions and tofu chunks. But, the soybean broth appetizer was soon obliterated by the onslaught of entrees.
The California roll with fish roe was excellent; it even had Cathy, my vegetarian friend, temporarily suspending her principles to savor a piece. Dong Choi, the sushi chef, accentuated the texture by rolling the rice lightly in sesame seeds. To dip this flavorful blend of shellfish, starch and vegetable (avocado) in soy sauce seemed almost criminal.
The importance of sauce was very clear in other instances. In the shrimp teriyaki, the sweet, reddish-brown sauce enhanced the green peppers and large shrimp. A dark-brown, soy-based sauce brought zest to a mound of light-gray buckwheat noodles (so did the radish paste, scallions and wasabi that we swirled into the mix). And the thick, salty-sweet dressing poured over our house salads gave new life to iceberg lettuce.
Dessert is limited to three kinds of ice cream: Red bean, green tea and mochi, a blend of strawberry, vanilla and green tea. Of the two we tried, the red bean's luscious raspberry-sherbet hue looked far more appealing than the bilious dark-green of the tea ice cream. But the latter's light flowery taste was easier on the palate than the red bean, which tasted like a super-sweet combination of marshmallow and vanilla.
Skipping dessert is not a bad move here. It just means you'll have more room for what really matters at Maki Maki: Sushi, dumplings and green-bean cakes. But do yourself a favor if you go - don't wear a belt.
22 W. Allegheny Ave., Towson
Open: For lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday
Credit cards: AE, MC, V
Prices: Appetizers $1.50 to $8.95; entrees $6.50 to $24.95