New Blu Bambu stirs things up in the Inner Harbor

EATS

September 22, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

I'm always glad to see locally owned restaurants among the chains in the Inner Harbor.

One appealing new quick-meal option on Pier 4 is Blu Bambu, owned by Gaithersburg-based Charlie Chiang's, which already runs several full-service Chinese restaurants in Virginia and Washington, as well as Kwai, a new venue at BWI's main food court.

Charlie Chiang's has been in business since 1976, and with all that experience, you'd expect Blu Bambu to feel professional. It does.

The space is clean and sunny, and the service is so efficient that nobody stands around for long, even when the place is bustling, as it was on a recent weekday. On nice days, customers can sit at outdoor tables. If the weather's less cooperative, they can perch on stools at a counter looking out a large picture window, people-watching as they eat.

Blu Bambu, near Chipotle and the Hard Rock Cafe, offers a tightly edited menu of inexpensive American-style Chinese, Thai and other Asian fare, including what it calls Mongolian stir-fries.

These stir-fries are the highlight of the Blu Bambu experience. Customers pick their protein - beef, shrimp, chicken, pork or a combination - then slide their tray down to the salad bar, where they fill a bowl with veggies, noodles, blocks of tofu and other items. (Some people fill the bowls past the teeter point.) Then they select from sauces that include teriyaki, coconut curry and Chinese-style barbeque.

At the end of the line, they hand over their goodies, and the men behind the counter get to work. Flames flare, food is flipped in the air, and steam flies as the ingredients are tossed and stirred in large woks. Within minutes, the finished meal, along with some steamed white rice, is placed in a square black plastic serving container.

The shrimp may be on the small side and the sauce may be a tad too salty, but these stir-fries are winners. The vegetables, including water chestnuts, bok choy, bamboo sprouts, slices of scallions, broccoli flowers and slivers of carrot, are admirably fresh. My curry coconut sauce struck a pleasant balance between sweetness and heat. And I like the containers, which are sturdy, attractive and make leftovers easy to carry - just ask for a lid.

The stir-fries are described on the menu as "healthy eating on your terms," and certainly it's possible to keep the calorie count down. During a recent visit, I watched a slim young woman eschew the meat, load her bowl with vegetables and request nothing but soy sauce on them.

But more typically, the first thing the cooks behind the counter do is swirl their woks with copious amounts of oil. It may be "heart healthy canola oil," as the menu promises, but it ain't low-calorie.

The stir-fry is much better than the pad thai, which contains the right flavors but has been cooked to the point of mushiness. The only crunch is from a small tub of crushed peanuts that comes with the noodles.

Also skippable is the vegetable tempura, with its overcooked veggies in an overload of heavy batter. We also passed on the greasy-looking kung pao chicken egg rolls.

These missteps are surprising, given that so much at Blu Bambu is fresh and tasty. A simple shrimp spring roll, a model of freshness with its crunchy greens and cool wonton wrapper, is a better choice than the egg roll.

Sushi choices are sedate, which makes sense in a restaurant like this, meant to appeal to throngs. The California and cucumber rolls are fine. They aren't exciting or original, but that's what makes them California and cucumber rolls. A few varieties of nigiri, including tuna, salmon, eel and spicy tuna, are also offered.

For customers in a hurry, a take-out case carries sushi and salads. Desserts are decadent and have nothing to do with the restaurant's Asian theme or focus on health-consciousness. Fortunately, the pre-packaged items, including chocolate-dipped cheesecake, are tucked out of sight and are therefore easy to resist.

BLU BAMBU

Where:

621 E. Pratt St., Pier 4, Inner Harbor

Call:

410-637-3398

Open:

11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

Credit cards:

All major

Prices:

Appetizers $1-$6.50, entrees $5.50-$7.50

Food: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Service: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Atmosphere: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

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