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Belly Up

Niwana Nirvana

A Feast for All Senses in Charles Village


Address:3 E. 33rd St.
Baltimore, MD 21218

More on Niwana.

By Susan Fradkin | Posted 10/13/1999

Sometimes you just have to leave the everyday behind. Close the door on noise, on clutter, on the thousand demands and impositions that wreak havoc with your soul. Leave them and enter the cool, beautiful universe of Japanese and Korean cuisine at Niwana (3 E. 33rd St., [410] 366-4115).

The eatery, which sits midway between Charles and St. Paul streets in Charles Village, inhabits a space that has seen a lot of restaurants come and go over the years. But Niwana, by virtue of exquisite renovation, has laid distinctive claim to the place—you'd never guess there was once a pizza joint here. Follow the hostess past the sushi bar. Take a gander at the koi fountain—lose yourself in the water cascading over the rocks. And note the exquisite, vividly colored fish. Now take a deep breath. Doesn't it feel as if your pressing concerns are just a little less pressing?

Continue on, moving down a few steps to a formal seating area, where a hushed and expectant silence reigns. Ponder the large menu, but rest assured your selections will stimulate not just your sense of taste, but also those of sight and smell.

Our server, a well-scrubbed Hopkins type, brings four small complimentary dishes to savor while we contemplate the lunch to come. A subtle kim chee has the kind of intense heat that sneaks up on you; a medley of cukes and carrots in a spicy sauce is less incendiary. The black beans, mildly crunchy, grow on us, as unfamiliar tastes often do. And an offering of zucchini with pieces of shrimp is fragrant with sesame oil. We've yet to order, and Niwana has already engaged all our senses.

My pal Sharon and I order a Killian's ($2) and a Sapporo ($3) while we await an assortment of hors d'oeuvres. Presently we receive small plates crowded with big flavors. Yaki mandu ($3.25) are succulent, good-sized crescent-shaped dumplings, eight of them on a plate. We also like the shumai (steamed-shrimp dumplings, $3.95), perfectly formed rounds that resemble little crowns. The tofu appetizer ($3.25), fried blocks of creamy bean curd in a teriyaki sauce, is a study in contrasting tastes and textures, but it doesn't manage to turn Sharon into a fan. Niwana puts a unique spin on that perennial Baltimore summertime favorite, the soft-shell crab ($5.95). Wearing a thick armor of tempura, two of the molted crustaceans perch on a bed of finely julienned cucumber. A smooth sauce the color of Thousand Island dressing is drizzled artfully across the crabs, and it packs a spicy wallop. With or without the sauce, the crabs—crunchy on the outside, juicy on the inside—are wonderful.

By now, of course, we are pretty full. The menu is full too—full of options such as sushi and sashimi, Korean specialties, dumpling dishes, teriyakis, and combination lunches packed in beautiful red and black lacquer boxes. There's a whole page of vegetarian dishes, a daily special of lobster tempura, salads, and soups.

We settle on sharing a noodle dish, Niwana nabe udon ($7.95), which arrives in a black earthenware pot with a handle. We are given bowls, ceramic spoons, and a ladle. The server removes the wooden lid with a flourish, and we are momentarily overcome, first by the aromas rising from the pot, then from a peek at the plethora of treasures within.

The noodles are long, soft tubes, more yielding than the pastas we know; they really soak up the broth. We also find shrimp, scallops, mushrooms, spinach, mussels, king crab, tofu, and two kinds of fish cake. An egg has been broken over the top of the dish and cooked by the heat inside the earthenware pot. And each spoonful of udon reveals a new texture or flavor. Pickled yellow radish—bright, lemony yellow—is served on the side.

The udon we chose is on the tame side, but others can be much more exotic. Likewise the sushi. I leave anxious to return for Green Dragon (eel, cucumber, and caviar), the Rainbow Roll (four kinds of fish with cucumber, caviar, and avocado), and Spicy Mindy (chopped tuna, salmon, caviar, scallion, radish flower, tempura flake, spicy sauce, and topping). Many of the dishes can be converted to vegetarian, and the takeout selection is immense.

Only dessert remains, to be consumed with small cups of fragrant green tea. We could finish our lunch with green tea or ginger ice cream, but our server says his personal favorite is red-bean ice cream ($2.50). As he has been consistently friendly and attentive, we let him be our guide. We are not disappointed. The sweet red-bean delight has the look of burgundy-cherry ice cream. It begins by tasting like tapioca, but opens out into a mild strawberry flavor. As with much of the food at Niwana, it's a pleasant surprise. We sip our tea slowly, reluctant to let the adventure end, unwilling—as yet—to reenter the swirl of the everyday.

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