The service is fine and the Peking duck is fabulous

Adventurous food is not on the menu, but customers don't mind


March 06, 2003|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sonny Lee's Hunan Taste is the place to go in Reisterstown. At least it seemed so on a recent Sunday night. At 6:30, the entryway was crowded with people waiting for tables.

Inside, we found fine service and a pleasant, well-lighted dining room with brown-and-cream walls and a fish tank bubbling quietly away.

The tables were spaced far enough apart to prevent a crowded feeling. Still, we could overhear a conversation at the next table:

"Was your duck fabulous?"

"Fabulous. Even better than usual."

The Peking duck, one of the restaurant's top sellers, was indeed fabulous, a medley of flavors and textures: the crisp, fatty skin; the rich meat; the zing of the onions; the soft pancake. Only the sauce, which was slightly too sweet, detracted.

The duck was brought to the table glistening and headless, then sliced as we watched. Thin pancakes were spread with brown sauce, then topped with a few slices of skin, a few slices of meat, and slivers of green onion.

Over the course of our dinner, I realized that the duck served as a theme for the 9-month-old restaurant. It offers a little more than expected, in this case the tableside carving, while deferring to timid taste buds by favoring sweet flavors over intense ones.

The theme started even before we ordered, when a pickled cabbage, a little something extra that was placed on our table, was sweeter and less tart than we expected.

Sonny Lee's is both a Chinese and a Japanese restaurant, with a large sushi bar near the front. The Japanese menu has teriyaki, tempura and sushi. Many customers order sushi as an appetizer, then Chinese dishes for their main courses, says owner Sonny Lee.

Several assortments of sushi are offered, such as a vegetarian roll combo and a tuna special. It's also possible to order from an a la carte list, which is what we did.

The tuna was excellent, a large and tender pink slab on a quarter-sized nugget of rice. A cooked sushi offering - spicy shrimp roll - tasted of Old Bay and was not particularly spicy. The ikura, or salmon roe, was somewhat fishy (always a risk with roe).

A bowl of miso soup was cloudy and nice, studded with bits of tofu and spinach. The light but slightly greasy spring roll was also satisfactory, stuffed with cabbage and small whole shrimp.

Before our main courses arrived, we were treated to another little extra - a small palate cleanser of rainbow sherbet in small cups. Like the pickled cabbage, it was sweet.

In addition to the excellent duck entree, we had two shrimp dishes: Szechwan shrimp, which arrived in a sweet and oniony red sauce; and shrimp in a white garlic sauce, which was very garlicky indeed. The latter was mixed with peas, lima beans and tiny diced carrots that looked as though they came from a can or freezer bag. Both featured large, tender shrimp that were tasty but not particularly interesting.

There were no desserts to speak of, except more rainbow sherbet, if we wanted it, and fortune cookies. We didn't need a cookie to tell us that the future is bright for Sonny Lee's, even if the food is not as adventurous as it could be.

Sonny Lee's Hunan Taste

Where: 750 Main St., Unit 104A, Reisterstown

Call: 410-833-7288

Open: For lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $2.95-$6.95; entrees $8.50-$15.95

Credit cards: All major cards

Food: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Excellent ****; Good ***; Fair **; Poor *

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