Half-Thai and half- Japanese: all good

In Canton, a hybrid has low prices, high quality and friendly service

Sunday Gourmet

February 29, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

The Sesum brothers, owners of several Japanese restaurants in the area, have made a success of their places by offering good food at good prices in a pleasant setting; by hiring staff who are exceptionally friendly and competent; and by dispensing with many of the rituals and traditions that might be off-putting to American tastes.

Oh, yes: And by making their restaurants half-Thai.

The new Sushi-San / Thai Jai Dee in Canton is the latest of these hybrids. Kam Sesum, the middle of the three brothers, opened it after working in his younger brother's Towson restaurant for several years. (The other places are the original San Sushi in Cockeysville, which had a Thai chef when I last ate there, and San Sushi Too / Thai One On in Towson. )

The Sesum brothers have a Chinese father and a Thai mother; but they mostly trained in Japanese restaurants. The only surprising thing is that they haven't opened a Chinese / Japanese / Thai restaurant yet.

Unlike the Towson branch, Sushi-San has only one dining room. It's in the spot where Hoang's Seafood Grill & Sushi Bar struggled along for several years before giving up. I'm not sure why it didn't succeed, but maybe this Asian restaurant can do better. Canton doesn't have many of them.

The best you can say about Sushi-San's dining room is that it's low-key and comfortable. You certainly wouldn't guess Japanese or Thai by looking at the curio cabinet, the stone chimney or the faux flowers. But there are spacious booths and lots of fabric to keep the noise level down.

Our waiter knew his stuff. Young and friendly, he was hip enough to tell us he was trying to persuade the kitchen to serve the fried bananas American-style with ice cream and a dessert sauce, but knowledgeable enough about the food to steer us to the high-octane chili and garlic sauce instead of the sweet and sour sauce with the Crispy Whole Fish. (The less sweet tamarind sauce isn't bad either.) That fish is a must-have, in spite of the maraschino cherry for an eye. Deep frying keeps the rockfish flesh tender and moist. At $23.95, it was more expensive than anything else on the menu, but people often share it.

Seafood seems to be the way to go here. Albacore tuna seared with Cajun spices and drizzled with a spicy cream was fabulous. Fat scallops teriyaki, cooked to juicy firmness, practically begged to be eaten. In honor of St. Valentine, Sushi-San is offering a Lady in Red Roll this month, an odd combination that made our taste buds stand up and salute. Shrimp tempura and ripe avocado snuggled together in their rice roll, with a drape of sliced tuna and a raspberry on top. The whole thing was bathed in a wasabi cream. All three Sesum restaurants seem to pride themselves on having what Kam Sesum calls modern as well as traditional sushi; the Lady in Red is definitely not traditional.

Sushi-San offers a full Japanese and a full Thai menu. It's a massive document, and we could only skim the surface. Still, what we tried was pretty good across the board. Least interesting to me was the Siam Steak, slices of filet marinated in Thai spices and stir fried with chili sauce and garlic. At these prices ($14.95) you can't really expect an extraordinary cut of beef, and you don't get it; but it's decent enough. If you feel like beef, you could also go with the sukiyaki, a more forgiving dish that can be had with either beef or chicken, plus vegetables and tofu in a steaming broth. Good winter food.

Start your meal with a selection from the endless list of sushi or one of the Thai salads. (The Japanese dinners come with a generous bowl of miso soup with tofu or an iceberg lettuce salad with a sweet dressing. ) A fiery salad of julienned green papaya, green beans, cherry tomatoes and dried shrimp pleased both the eye and the tongue. We asked for it mild, so it merely made a little smoke come out of our ears, nothing serious. For sissies, there's a good satay, grilled chicken on a skewer, with a somewhat oily peanut dipping sauce.

I don't usually say this in Asian restaurants, but be sure to save room for dessert. The Thai side of the menu offers up a superb sticky rice, creamy soft and salty-sweet, that contrasts with the soft, fruity sweetness of the mango slices. But even better is the black sticky rice, which has more texture, with tender slices of coconut. We also tried the Beach Boy Roll made with mango and avocado. I thought they were going to be rolled in sweet sticky rice, but they were actually in a not-sweet egg roll wrap. Interesting in concept, it simply wasn't sweet enough to be classified as dessert.

Canton's new Asian restaurant should succeed, as the other two Sesum ventures have. Not so much because the food is good, although it is, but because this is a very enjoyable place to be. That makes it an almost perfect neighborhood restaurant, run by nice folks who will soon recognize you as a regular and with prices that won't put a dent in your wallet.

Sushi-San / Thai Jai Dee

Food: ***

Service: *** 1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 2748 Lighthouse Point East, Canton

Hours: Every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $6.50-$10.95; main courses, $8.95-$22.95

Call: 410-534-8888

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

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