Highly polished tastes of the East

Hip and stylish Cafe Asia presents an appealing menu with cuisines of many nations

Sunday Gourmet

September 01, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

The new Cafe Asia in Power Plant Live has it all. Fine food. Up-to-the-minute trendiness. Beautiful people at the bar sipping cosmos. A staff dressed in black. Anime and kung fu movies playing continuously.

You say you don't know what anime is and, anyway, you don't like raw fish? No problem. You don't have to order sushi or be a fan of Japanese animation to appreciate the restaurant's high style and good pan-Asian cuisine. And the prices are right: nothing much on the menu (with the exception of some elaborate sushi combinations) is over $16.

Baltimore's Cafe Asia is the third of three; the other two are located in Washing-ton and Arlington, Va.

You'll find ours placed demurely between Babalu Grill and Ruth's Chris Steak House, just off the Power Plant Live plaza. Those two entrances shout exuberantly; Cafe Asia's whispers -- you'll have to keep an eye out for it.

Inside is a hip, Japanese-inspired decor. It looks terrific.

The highly polished bare floors set the tone, and the effect is rich but spare. The bar area at the entrance has upholstered seats and low tables separated by walls of diaphanous fabric. Then the room snakes around to the back, where there's another bar and a sushi bar with cloth-covered tables at the center.

The neutral color scheme is soothing, and the lighting is soft. Video screens and music add the design equivalent of a jolt of hot sauce to the mix. Be warned though: smoking is allowed at both bars. If it bothers you, be careful where the hostess seats you.

Baltimore has other pan-Asian restaurants, but few offer such a variety of cuisines: Thai, Chinese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Malaysian and probably more I don't recognize.

You can come here just for sushi (the sushi bar is open until 1 a.m.) or for a complete meal: shrimp and avocado salad to start, perhaps, with a soft-shell crab in a Szechwan garlic sauce as your main course and chocolate ginger creme brulee for dessert.

We had the best of both worlds, beginning with a shared Cafe Asia Roll of meaty red tuna, fresh crab meat (as opposed to crab stick) and a luscious avocado.

You could make a meal on the starters alone. Most spectacular was a tuna tartare: silky chopped raw tuna with a raw quail egg on top. It was flavored with cilantro oil and Japanese-style mayonnaise, placed on a bed of mesclun greens and decorated with a jaunty spray of sprouts. Equally appealing were the pan-fried Chinese "ravioli," which had an intriguing ground pork filling and a fiery soy dipping sauce.

Both of these offer plenty of kick, but there are more soothing options. Cold summer rolls combined shrimp, rice noodles, fresh cilantro and mint to good effect; the sheer rice paper wrapper was a welcome alternative to the usual fried shell. An octopus salad paired thin slices of grilled octopus, chewy and flavorful, with a snappy vinaigrette.

Cafe Asia's main courses have a sophistication and visual appeal that's very pleasing. Japanese noodle dishes, for instance, are unusually delicate, filled with pretty vegetables and attractively arranged shellfish or meat.

You won't find much that's bland here. Quite the opposite.

It would have been nice if our waitress could have told us the difference between the red curry and the panang curry, both spicy Thai red curries, but whichever you choose you can count on having to reach for the water glass. Either comes with shellfish or chicken.

In fact, the majority of dishes start with a sauce and vegetables, the choice of the main ingredient being up to the customer.

Two of the exceptions are a remarkably tender Viet-namese grilled chicken on skewers, marinated in lime and garlic, and a spicy Indonesian beef in a thick coconut gravy.

Fresh herbs, notably basil and cilantro, spark many of the dishes. The former added freshness to a Thai brown sauce with chicken, and cilantro was a recurring note throughout the meal.

Desserts are less inspired than the rest of the menu. There were only four, but our waitress was unsure of what they were. (You can tell I'm a little grumpy that she wasn't more familiar with the food, although she got the meal on the table just fine.)

The chocolate ginger creme brulee fell short of the traditional version, lacking the usual caramelized crust. Ice cream in Asian flavors like litchi and green tea was soothing, and fried bananas with honey had their own super-sweet appeal. But some elegant, sugary little Western offering wouldn't be out of place here.

Those are minor quibbles. Cafe Asia is a happy addition to the city's restaurant scene and, with its late-night sushi bar, to Baltimore's nightlife. If happy hour is more your speed, there's $1 sushi as well as discounted drinks from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Cafe Asia

Food: *** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: *** 1/2

Where: 614 Water St., Power Plant Live, Baltimore

Hours: Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday dinner only

Prices: Appetizers, $4-$11; main courses, $7-$16

Call: 410-528-1925

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

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