Dishes with a healthy imagination

SUNDAY GOURMET

Olive & Sesame's good-for-you concept doesn't overwhelm kitchen creativity

April 28, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

The concept is admirable: a restaurant that demonstrates how delicious Asian food can be without the fat and calories. From the moment it opened, Olive & Sesame was a hit. Owner John Luen, originally from Hong Kong, promised to use only healthful olive and sesame oils in his cooking. He would steam, grill and stir-fry his fresh seafood, white meat chicken and vegetables. He would use light soy sauce; and, of course, MSG would never make an appearance in his kitchen.

The contemporary, angular interior of the restaurant had a look more Mediterranean than Chinese or Japanese, with a large painting of a Greek island dominating the room. The unusual name only emphasized how different this Asian restaurant would be from others.

Five years later, Olive & Sesame is still packing 'em in. Every table in the small dining room was taken the weeknight we were there, and people were waiting. But oddly enough, the foods going by our table were dishes like Shredded Crispy Veal, a variation on orange beef. The slivers of veal are coated in batter and deep-fried to a crisp gold, then served in a spicy-sweet, cornstarch-thickened orange sauce. Don't tell me this is low-fat or low-calorie.

Of course, you can order from the "Revolution Diet" section -- these are dishes made without salt, sugar or cornstarch -- but I don't think the majority of customers do. The tables are very close together, and I did a lot of peering around. (In fact, they are so close the friendly women at the table next to us insisted I try some of their Shredded Crispy Veal, as though they were part of our party.)

In any case, most Chinese restaurants have a healthy dishes section these days, so you don't need to go to Olive & Sesame if you don't want cornstarch and sugar. True, most of those dishes at other restaurants are simply steamed, with sauces served separately. Olive & Sesame's choices are a bit more interesting.

My recommendation, though, is to come here when you crave good Chinese-American or Japanese-influenced food, not because you're on a diet. Some dishes are old favorites done well, like Mandarin-style dumplings stuffed with ground pork and pan-fried. Others will surprise as well as please, like eight fat mussels on the half shell swimming in a salty-spicy wine sauce.

Olive & Sesame has a sushi bar as well, and even if you aren't a raw fish devotee, your table can enjoy a Chesapeake roll with fried soft crab centered in the sticky rice and served still warm.

The waiter brought our starters out in courses for us to share, which worked very well. Only a grilled eggplant appetizer made little impression on us, with its pale winter tomato slices vying for attention with sun-dried tomatoes, onions not grilled quite long enough and an odd paste that was supposedly pesto.

Some of Olive & Sesame's combinations are nothing short of spectacular, like sea scallops and vegetables in a black pepper sauce, which comes sizzling to the table and shouts its flavors. Others merely whisper, like the poetically named Rainbow Chicken, with its white meat slivers, multicolored peppers and bean sprouts.

In a restaurant that emphasizes healthful food, you might expect more in the way of seasonal vegetables (asparagus, anyone?); the crisply fried slices of tofu in the tofu hot pot were paired with the same mix of vegetables that appeared in other dishes. That's not to say the dish didn't win us over with its light, pleasant sauce.

The most fabulous looking of our main courses had a Japanese accent. A Santa Barbara Shrimp dish showcased enormous grilled shrimp bathed in a sauce of rum, butter and chervil and topped with yellow-gold caviar. The sauce stopped us, though. None of us liked it, although we couldn't figure out exactly what was wrong.

Desserts are simple: One choice is mochi, a Japanese snack made with a small ball of red bean, green tea or strawberry ice cream inside a rice flour covering. It's better than it sounds. The other choice is a slice of fresh pineapple and a banana grilled and arranged with chocolate and vanilla sauces.

The desserts illustrate two of Olive & Sesame's most appealing traits: The kitchen isn't afraid to make use of traditional Asian food, and you can expect even the healthy stuff (like the grilled fruit) to be gilded with some not-so-diet-conscious accents.

Olive & Sesame

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 1500 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers, $4.99-$7.99; main courses, $8.95-$27.95

Call: 410-484-7787

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

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