Bulgoki is just one of the Asian entrees offered at Nina's… (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun…)
For a quick meal with Asian flair, Nina's is just the ticket.
Billing itself as an espresso bar with a taste of the Orient, the small restaurant on the northwest corner of Centre and Calvert streets does a brisk business during the day selling coffee and takeout lunch fare. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that many of Nina's daytime customers wander over from the southeast corner of Centre and Calvert, home of The Baltimore Sun.)
Nina's has extended its hours to 8 in the evening, and begun emphasizing Asian, mainly Korean, dishes on its menu. In the evenings, after most of the newspaper riffraff clears out, the culture crowd - folks destined for Center Stage, the Peabody and Walters - drops in, mixing with residents of the adjacent Waterloo Place apartments. I dined there one recent evening with friends and family.
We ordered at the counter on the first floor, and then walked up a flight of stairs to take our seats among the handful of tables. The kitchen is also on the second floor. One of the entertaining aspects of this layout is that customers can watch as a staff member lowers carryout food in a wicker basket from an opening on the second floor down to the counter on the first floor. The basket reminds me of the mustachioed toy duck that used to descend carrying a $100 bill when contestants on Groucho Marx's old television quiz show said the "secret word." The first time the basket descended on me when I was visiting Nina's, I thought I had said the "secret word" and had won a sandwich.
There is a seating area downstairs, with stools and a long table. The tables upstairs, with chairs and artworks hanging on the wall, offer a little more atmosphere.
I started with a cup of miso soup. It was soothing, with clean flavors, chunks of tofu and green onion floating in it. It was a generous portion for $2. The soups here are hot, not warm. The ramyun noodles ($5 for plain, $6.50 with chicken) are positively steaming. Made with a vegetable base, a big bowl of curled, thick ramyun noodles is outstanding, once it cools down.
Like many in their 20s, my son and his girlfriend are enthusiastic sushi eaters. They ordered several types, eating them both as appetizers and entrees.
The $6 Nina roll, made of crab, asparagus and fish roe was fresh and flavorful, but was surpassed in our informal crustacean sushi taste-off by the ($9.50) soft-shell crab roll. The eel and avocado roll ($5) made a strong case that it was avocado's best friend, but that honor, in the end, went to the mixture of shrimp tempura, avocado and spicy tuna called The Mount Vernon ($10). The portions were so big that we had the benefit of sushi leftovers.
My wife and I sampled dishes from the Asian classics side of the menu.
Her spicy pork ($7.95) lived up to its billing. Tender pieces of marinated, stir-fried pork were coated with a fiery pepper sauce. Served over a bed of warm sticky rice and with a substantial salad, it was pungent and pleasing.
My favorite dish of the evening was the bulgoki. These thin pieces of beef, marinated in soy sauce and then stir-fried, were tender, juicy and faintly sweet. I also took note of the salad. So often the side salad is an afterthought, but this one had genuine greens and an Italian dressing.
Other than cookies, desserts were not an option, as most of the pastries sold at Nina's are aimed at the daytime coffee drinkers. On the beverage front, I recommend the homemade lemonade ($2.50) and the tart, sparkling Izze fruit beverages ($2 a bottle), especially the pomegranate.
Nina's is a small space, presided over by the welcoming personality of Jean-Hee Pierce, who takes orders, remembers faces and catches the basket.
Venue info: Nina's
Where: 600 N. Calvert St., Mount Vernon
Open: 7:30 a.m.-8 p.m., Monday-Friday
Credit Cards: Amex, Visa, MC
Restaurant Review Key: Key:
Outstanding: Good: Fair or uneven: Poor: