East Meets East Pratt
Café Asia Imports Uneven Pan-Asian Cuisine to the Inner Harbor
This location is closed
I try not to be too much of an anti-Inner Harbor curmudgeon--every now and then I like to go down to Pratt Street and check out what the city's been doing with my tax dollars. But when it comes to food, I'm a certified anti-tourist zone snob. With one or two exceptions, I find Inner Harbor restaurants to be uninteresting, mediocre in quality, and criminally overpriced.
Café Asia's recent arrival in the Power Plant Live! manufactured entertainment district (unofficial motto: "For those frightened of Fells Point . . .") would have been doomed from the start, in my book, had it not been an offshoot of the well-regarded Café Asia in Arlington, Va. Plus, considering my perpetual hunt for decent Chinese food in Baltimore, it seemed a moral imperative to visit any new (pan-) Asian eatery in town.
Considering its high-rent, high-profile location, it's no surprise that Café Asia boasts a stylish appearance. The spacious interior, high-tech but comfortable, comes as a surprise after the minimalist facade, which is so plain (and minimally marked--there's no sign per se, just a logo on the glass door) that we nearly walked right past. I truly dug the way the place looked, from the padded lowrider club chairs to the design-y light fixtures to the chain-mail curtains dividing the low dining tables. Appropriately Eastern touches are everywhere, from the simple Zen of the table settings--chopsticks propped up on small gray stones--to the martial-arts movies playing on a flat-screen television in the bar and the anime projected onto a rear wall.
All this high style generally portends a high price tag to match, but astonishingly Café Asia is not just reasonable, it's downright cheap. Nearly all entrées fall in the $8-$11 range, and the most expensive top out at $16. We happened to arrive during sushi happy hour (Monday-Saturday, 5:30-7:30 p.m.) when all nigiri are $1 each. We enjoyed some silky hamachi (yellowtail), very good unagi (roasted eel), and Tsingtao beer ($4) while perusing the lengthy menu.
Café Asia's menu truly matches the restaurant's name. The majority of the continent is represented, foodwise, on the menu which ranges from the familiar--pad Thai, teriyaki--to the obscure-for-Baltimore, such as Indonesian belado (a chile dish made from tomatoes, shallots and onions) and Malaysian mee goreng (egg noodles in a spicy chile-soy sauce with tofu). Nearly all the dishes are available in vegetarian and even vegan versions, a true boon to the city's oft-neglected veg population. (The nearly endless permutations of the various entrées mean that prices also vary wildly within the aforementioned range.)
In the spirit of sampling as many cuisines as we could in one evening, we tried to order each dish from a different country of origin. We began with Thai yum with squid ($8), a spicy seafood salad that could serve as a main course. The nicely tender morsels of squid, marinated in garlic, chile pepper, and lime juice, should have provided more than the occasional flash of latent heat against the mild cilantro, scallions, and lettuce. I was a little disappointed with Café Asia's mix--the ingredients were impeccable in freshness and quality, but their flavors were so muted that the entire dish came off a bit flat.
Vietnamese bun salad ($8), however, was superb. Grilled chicken cutlets topped an enormous bowl of rice vermicelli, baby greens, mint leaves, finely julienned carrots, bean sprouts, and cilantro. The chicken, tender and redolent of lemon grass, was outstanding, and the terrific dressing/dipping sauce (you can pour or you can dunk)--an incendiary rice wine/tamarind/chile mix--pulled all the flavors together in an intriguing study of contrasts, hot vs. cool and sour vs. sweet vs. savory.
Café Asia's rendang ($10) blew me away. It's a sort of Indonesian pot roast--slow-cooked beef in a thick, flavorful gravy that tastes of coconut and lemon grass instead of Lipton's onion soup mix. Wow. After polishing off the generous serving of meat, we mopped the bowl with rice to get every last drop of sauce.
Sadly, Café Asia did not disprove my contention that there is no truly good Chinese food in Baltimore. Though both the shellfish and vegetables were cooked to a satisfying level of crisp-tenderness, the sha cha shrimp ($9) was essentially flavorless. The chile-based sauce should have tasted of peanuts, sesame, and dried fish, but the dish's main flavor came from its abundance of onions. No thanks.
Dessert simply is not emphasized in the East as in the West, but I do wish Café Asia's otherwise sophisticated kitchen explored the continent a bit further than ice cream (vanilla, green tea, or lychee, $3), fried bananas ($3.50, $4.50 with ice cream), and crème brúlée ($6) (from the French occupation of Vietnam?). How about some Thai sticky rice with mango, or pulut hitam (Malaysian black-rice pudding with coconut meat)?
Like trying to eat boiled peanuts with ivory chopsticks: Dishthis@hotmail.com.