Columbia Contenders Worth Hunting For
Columbia confuses me. At first, it was just a handful of villages. Then the engineered city started bursting at the seams. Major thoroughfares multiplied, creating a layout that would have stymied Prince Henry the Navigator. Then some Einstein came up with the bright idea to hide perfectly good restaurants in the middle of office complexes, all but invisible from the highway. As a public service, I'll clue you in to a couple of worthy Howard County finds. If you need directions getting to them, well, that's your problem.
Our recent dinner at Jesse Wong's Asean Bistro (8775 Centre Park Drive,  772-5300) had everything to recommend it. Everything, that is, except meat. Not that Asean Bistro doesn't offer meat. It does, along with a host of standard and unique Chinese dishes, most of them under 10 bucks. It's just that we didn't try any of the meat offerings. Our friends Barry and Joanne haven't touched red meat, poultry, or most seafood since having an epiphany after stuffing themselves with lamb in Greektown. Joanne, in particular, exhibits the convert's zeal for eating low on the food chain. So when she suggests a (mostly) vegetarian meal at a beautiful restaurant in Columbia, how can we say no?
At the Asean Bistro, you'll find the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly. Under the category of good, try Chef Liu's Vegetables in Soothing Lettuce Wrap ($5.95), a tasty appetizer of minced mushrooms, green onions, and pine nuts. The intriguing condiments of mint and lime are a terrific touch. Also in the good category was what the menu describes as a "meatless chicken chunk" made from soybean protein, soybean fiber, flour, and vegetarian seasonings. It's offered prepared in a number of ways. We try it Kung Pao ($12.95), with peanuts, hot peppers, and an excellent sauce.
The vegetarian goose ($3.95) didn't do much for us. The dish consists of two kinds of mushrooms with celery, ginger root, and coriander, all wrapped in bean curd and roasted. I filed this one under "bad," although bland would be a more just description. Not so much bad as bizarre is the expensive shark's-fin soup ($15 for two or, in our case, four). Not exactly vegetarian, I admitbut it's shark's-fin soup, for heaven's sake. We had to try it. Our reward was a fascinating tureen of dark, thick, chicken-based broth filled with shredded chicken (a little meat, but at least it wasn't red) and shredded mushrooms and shreds of something elsesomething clear, gelatinous, and so chewy you either have to give up or let them slither down your throat. (I'm assuming it was the fin.) I'd try the soup again, but only if the price came down.
And there was the ugly: braised vegetarian partridge ($9.95). Avoid it. The entrée features bean-curd sheets draped around cabbage, mushrooms, and tofu and served in brown sauce. It tasted dull and looked like wet washcloths tossed on to a plate.
Fish and seafood figure prominently on Jesse Wong's menu. We sampled a wonderfully fresh house combination in a basket ($18.95), a mix of shrimp, scallops, and mild white fish, served in a light garlic sauce and accompanied by red peppers and snow peas. Better yet was the delicious steamed filet of sole ($13.95), served in a spicy yellow bean sauce and accompanied by bamboo shoots and asparagus.
No Chinese desserts are offered here, but your server will tempt you with a tray of imported beauties such as passion-fruit-and-orange pie ($5.95) and chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry Napoleon ($4.95). File under "good."
Across the street, the Tavern at Centre Park (8808 Centre Park Drive,  884-7001) is more high-tech than tavern, a large open room done in mauve with a bar at one end. I found it quiet during lunch there, but I imagine happy hour is deafening.
My pal Smack and I wasted no time and dove right into primo appetizers. Roasted vegetable hummus ($5.95), creamy and topped with peppers, onions, and zucchini, packed a mule's kick of garlic flavor. A tasty crab-and-artichoke dip ($9.95) supplied a sodium high, thanks to the addition of capers and green olives.
Smack had never tried a wrap (she leads a sheltered life), so she ordered one featuring buffalo chicken ($7.95). A green-tinted tortilla on her plate encased hunks of fried breast meat, tomato, lettuce, radicchio, and bok choy. The hot sauce was neutralized, sadly, by the blue-cheese dressing, but Smack's quibble was with the wrapper itself. Grill a tortilla too long and it tastes burnt.
My dish, mushroom-ravioli pesto ($5.95), was superb. The comfortingly smooth pesto was bright green and really fresh. The three enormous ravioli were filled with a variety of mushrooms, which infused the dish with wonderful, woodsy flavors. More evidence that there's plenty of good food to be had in Columbiaif you can find it.
Jesse Wong's Asean Bistro: Open 11 A.M.-10 P.M. Monday through Thursday, 11 A.M.-11 P.M. Friday, noon-11 P.M. Saturday, and noon-10 P.M. Sunday. Tavern at Centre Park: 11 A.M.-10 P.M. Monday through Thursday, 11 A.M.-11 P.M. Friday, 4 P.M.-11 P.M. Saturday, and 7 A.M.-4 P.M. Sunday.