Last summer the space at 510 York Road was a new little Japanese steak house. This year it's a new little pan-Asian restaurant. You can appreciate the optimism and still wonder: What were they thinking?
Towson has always been hard on restaurants, for reasons that totally escape me. Asian restaurants that don't have a liquor license have a strike against them from the get-go, because there are so many Asian restaurants in Towson, and so many of them do serve alcohol. The lack of convenient parking probably hurts, too.
The new Jasmine can't do much about its BYOB status, but it has solved the parking problem. Diners can park free at the Towson Commons garage across the street. The new owners have prettied the place up, too. Fuji was decorated on a shoestring. Jasmine has redone the dining room in shades of orange and rust, with lots of booths and a few tables.
Why go here rather than any one of a number of Japanese, Thai, Korean or Chinese places in Towson? Two reasons. First, the prices are good. (That's often true of restaurants that don't have a liquor license.) And the food is truly pan-Asian, as opposed to Asian fusion. So if you and your friend can't agree on whether to go for sushi or Thai food, no problem. There's a bit of both, as well as Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese.
Some things are better than others. The Jasmine platter for two falls in the better category. It's a pretty, indulgent choice, a sampler of fried and sweet appetizers. Two shrimp, the approximate size of small lobsters, lie crunchy and gold in their faintly sweet coconut batter. They are draped on a decorative blue plate with skewered chicken sate drizzled with peanut sauce, spring rolls cut on the diagonal to make four pieces, and two crab rangoon (or whatever the plural is) -- crisp wonton wrappers folded around cream cheese and a bit of crab. These are artistically garnished with vegetables and a sprig of bright green cilantro.
Even prettier is the dim sum sampler, served in a wooden steamer. The various dumplings include a pale green one stuffed with spinach, crystal shrimp (so-called because of the translucent look of the wrapper) and shumai (chicken and pork).
The rest of our meal doesn't quite live up to the promise of our appetizers. I should have warned my friend off the shiitake saute because the price ($14.95) is too low. That's too cheap for a dish that involves "medallions of sirloin." The mushrooms are woodsy and fine in their balsamic-flavored brown sauce, but the beef is leathery.
A Jasmine roll doesn't have the fine delicacy of the best maki, and the seafood inside is overcooked; but the combination of lobster claw meat, fish, avocado, cucumber, mango and a drizzle of spicy sauce has a certain appeal.
Some dishes play it safe, like the island coconut curry chicken, with tender chicken and vegetables. Nothing wrong with that. Some dishes intrigue just with their description, like the prosciutto-wrapped fillet of red snapper with bok choy and sweet potato puree. The fillet is beautifully fresh and perfectly cooked, and the steamed Chinese cabbage and potatoes offer an explosion of color. But the too-thick prosciutto overwhelms the fish with its intense flavor and saltiness.
Jasmine's food is sometimes a little showy and not particularly subtle, but it's fun. Take the candied bananas for dessert. "Show time," the waitress says as she arrives at the table. She dips the sections of fried batter dripping with molten sugar syrup in ice water, then deposits the sizzling morsels on our plates. The syrup has immediately hardened into something like the coating of a candied apple, a contrast to the soft, sweet banana and fried batter.
The service here is friendly, professional and swift. Of course, we are the only people in the restaurant. Still, I get the feeling that even when the place is full, Jasmine's staff will knock themselves out to make sure you have a good time. They are very eager to please.
Jasmine Asian Bistro
Service: *** 1/2
Where: 510 York Road
Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $2.50-$10.95; Entrees: $7.95-$18.95