The Chinese food we Americans love isn't health food. This is not exactly a news flash; but restaurateur John Luen has parlayed that simple fact into a very successful restaurant in Pikesville, and may do the same with a second Olive & Sesame in Towson.
I say "may," because an amazing number of eating places that open in Towson don't make it, for reasons that I don't understand. Asian restaurants seem to fare better than most, though. And Olive & Sesame has an unusual gimmick. The draw is healthier dishes, but the reality is that you can get the fried stuff with the thick sauces if you want it. So, everybody is happy.
There are ways and ways you can make food healthier. (And before I go any further, I should add that the chef's specialties aren't the healthiest choices on the menu.) You might think a place named Olive & Sesame would be Mediterranean, not Chinese and Japanese; but that's not the case. It's so called because the kitchen uses olive and sesame oils; those oils are supposedly better for you than others. But if you're eating a lot of food fried in them, how healthy is that?
No MSG is added at Olive & Sesame, but that's getting to be par for the course.
The beef served is flank steak and the chicken is white meat, both with less fat than some other choices; but isn't that true at a lot of Chinese restaurants? My point is that you shouldn't be fooled into thinking you can walk into Olive & Sesame, order General Tso's chicken and expect to have a low-cal meal. Besides the fact that the chicken is deep fried, portions are huge and meat-heavy.
What I like about Olive & Sesame's menu is that if you do know what to stay away from, you have a lot of healthy choices. There are entree salads, which you don't usually get in Asian restaurants, and a section called Revolution Diet. These are the "health entrees" at other places, made with steamed ingredients, with sauce on the side and brown instead of white rice. They are often given short shrift. But at Olive & Sesame, you get a number of dishes fixed this way, like the Protein Trio, with fat scallops, shrimp, chicken and vegetables. The food is presented in pretty bamboo steamers. I do have one complaint: Maybe the spicy Hunan sauce on the side didn't contain cornstarch, as the menu says, but something had thickened it.
Back to what sets Olive & Sesame apart from other Chinese eating places. You can get the restaurant's version of pizza, flatbread with various toppings, and several pastas -- not just udon and soba noodle dishes, but roast vegetable or grilled shrimp fettuccine. As I said, something for almost everyone.
The best Chinese dish we ordered was the Peking duck, with lacquered rectangles of crisp duck skin, plum sauce and green onions, and tender pancakes to wrap them in. The dish in its traditional form is delicious but not exactly a nutritionist's delight.
"Dragon and Phoenix" features General Tso's chicken on one side of an enormous platter and lobster tail hunks in a standard white sauce on the other. This would easily feed a table of four. It's best to order a vegetable dish separately if you're serious about health issues: Dragon and Phoenix is protein-heavy even for this restaurant. Lemongrass adds a small thrill to mixed vegetables, although the herb looks dark and stringy when it's been sauteed.
As for first courses, forget the grilled eggplant with red onions, tomatoes and pesto. The combination doesn't work here any better than it did at the original restaurant. Once again, a traditional and less healthy dish gave the most satisfaction -- shrimp and vegetable tempura -- although tofu grilled with a teriyaki sauce wasn't bad. Vegetarian steamed dumplings didn't have the delicacy of the ones I get at my local carryout.
Nothing was quite what I expected at Olive & Sesame. The wine list was better than I thought it would be, but when I asked for tea, I got a mug of hot water and a tea bag. The dessert made in the kitchen, grilled pineapple and banana with chocolate sauce, turned out to be less appealing than the selection of Bindi desserts, a line of delicious imported bombes and sorbets frozen in hollowed-out fruit skins.
As for the restaurant space itself, it's pleasantly decorated without being memorable. If you're truly interested in your health, don't let the hostess seat you in the section to the left. Yes, it does have a window. But customers at the bar and the booths nearby are allowed to light up.
Olive & Sesame
Food: ** 1/2
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Where: 2-4 W. Pennsylvania Ave., Towson
Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $1.50-$7.99; main courses, $9.95-$28.95
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *