Buffet beckons at China Best, but eat your rice

Long table includes sushi, squid and salmon

Eats: dining reviews, Table Talk

November 20, 2003|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The sign above the sushi and Chinese food buffet at China Best is one of the strangest I've ever seen. Written in large black letters on pink cardboard, it notes that the sushi in the buffet is meant to be eaten with rice. If the fish is eaten without the rice, customers will be charged $1 per rice ball that is left on the plate.

I understand the sentiment at work here: If customers didn't fill up on rice, the $14.29 buffet price tag ($7.57 for lunch) would be a money pit for the restaurant. But rice ball police? I was almost tempted to leave a ball or two on my plate, just to see if I would actually be charged.

Owner Mary Kuan said customers are occasionally charged for rice balls left on the plate, just to keep them in line, but not often. As it turned out, our server was so inattentive I probably could have left five rice balls and still escaped penalty.

Even with the warning, the buffet was clearly a good deal. In addition to the raw morsels of tuna, squid, salmon, eel, crab and more, the long table was stocked with a variety of sushi rolls, filled with tiny morsels of cucumbers, avocado, seaweed, tuna, crab and other delicacies.

My general feeling about all-you-can-eat sushi is that it's not a good idea, since the seafood must be impeccably fresh to be edible, but the sushi at China Best was actually quite decent. The restaurant has been around for more than nine years, so it must be doing something right.

Though some of the items were a touch chewy, the raw seafood was fresh enough and blessedly clear of any yucky smell, taste or texture. Items were frequently restocked by a busy chef at the sushi bar.

A large bowl of wasabi was on the side, forcing diners to find their own ratio of fish to sinus-clearing paste. This is a job I prefer leaving to professionals, as I always use too much wasabi and have to choke back tears of spice-induced agony.

However, I appreciated the bowl of pickled ginger, since I can never get enough of the sweet condiment.

Though sushi is the main attraction, the buffet also had several soups, a variety of pickled vegetable salads, lo mein, spring rolls, shrimp toast, a kind of barbecued chicken and fried chicken chunks in a super-sweet orange sauce. For dessert, there were sweet rolls and ice cream (vanilla or rainbow sherbet).

The lo mein was coated in a heavy sauce, but the spring rolls were delicious and even a little light. The greasy shrimp toast was barely edible, but the vegetable salads found a refreshing balance between sweet and tart. Stir-fried green beans were oily but addictive.

Kuan said most customers order the buffet, and our server seemed surprised when we requested a few items off the menu. We asked for moo-shi chicken with no mushrooms, a request that many restaurants find difficult to fill. Some poor soul probably picked the mushrooms out of our moo-shi by hand and did an admirable job, missing only a few. The moo-shi itself was lovely, with large chunks of tender chicken and stir-fried vegetables that retained a hint of crunch.

Our steamed dumplings, however, were not as successful, as they were surrounded by a heavy, unappealing dough.

When the buffet is the main attraction, service doesn't have to be stellar, but we would have liked someone to come by every now and then to clear our plates and refill our water glasses.

Sushi bars are few and far between, and with good reason. But if a sushi buffet is what you crave, you could do a lot worse than China Best.

China Best

Where: 9958 Reisterstown Road, Owings Mills

Call: 410-363-8160 or 410-363-8161

Open: Lunch and dinner daily

Credit cards: MC, V

Prices: Appetizers $1.95-$4.95, entrees $7.25-$19.95

Food: **

Service: *

Atmosphere: * 1/2

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

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