"Healthy Chinese" Will Please Many Palates
Along with the obvious perks of being a food critic, I am sometimes accorded the dubious honor of being asked to recommend "the perfect restaurant" for this or that person or occasion. The usual query goes something like this: "The whole family's coming to town, and we need a place to eat. My brother's a vegetarian, Uncle Ed hates ethnic, Mom only eats fish, and Aunt Selena can't have spicy. Where should we go?"
The first response that comes to mind is "to hell in a handbasket," but I try to do my best. And that's become a lot easier since I stumbled upon Olive and Sesame. This pretty strip-mall eatery styles itself as "healthy Chinese"--the name comes from its commitment to using only olive and sesame oils and light soy sauce in its cooking, and to eschew MSG. But what I really like about Olive and Sesame is that it tries to be all things to all people, and mostly succeeds.
When I was growing up, I thought the term "chosen people" meant that God had selected us Jews for a special appreciation of things Chinese. My mother and grandmother played mah-jongg several times a week, and we went out for Chinese food at least as often. We joined hordes of other Jewish families making a late-night second dinner of spareribs, fried rice, and chow mein at one of Baltimore's few (at the time) Chinese restaurants. Where else to celebrate a good report card, a piano recital, a sweet 16? Judging from the Wednesday-night crowd at Olive and Sesame, things haven't changed. Tables in the small, simple dining room adjoining the sushi bar stayed busy all night. My pal Joanne (Irish Catholic, from California, no history of mah-jongg) joined me for a sampling of menu items.
First off, we avoided those offerings designed to appeal to fussy relatives (salad Niçoise, blackened-chicken salad, salmon Monique, Santa Barbara shrimp), though some of them sounded downright tasty, and started off instead with miso soup ($2.50), spicy mussels ($6.99), and Mandarin-style dumplings ($4.99). The soup was nicely seasoned, with snippets of seaweed, sliced spring onion, and tiny tofu cubes. The dumplings packed a light, greaseless filling of ground pork and vegetable into dough so fresh we felt they must be formed, not just steamed, on demand. But our favorite appetizer was the mussels, served with the top shells removed in an arresting sauce that left our mouths tingling. We devoured the plump mollusks, then used the shells to scoop up the remaining sauce and slurp it to the last drop.
From the looks of things--specifically, other tables--sushi seems to be a big seller here. so we tried a Manekin roll ($7.50), raw tuna and salmon with cream cheese, avocado, sun-dried tomato, and roe. Beautiful to look at, sensuous to eat. We sighed with pleasure at the variety of tastes and textures and the sheer freshness of ingredients.
Even more eclectically attractive was a Japanese selection, grilled chicken negimaki ($14.95)--breast of chicken pounded thin, rolled around fresh carrots, asparagus, and spring onion, then grilled to a fine smokiness and light char. The presentation was lovely, the rolls sliced into colorful pinwheels, set on a bed of very light teriyaki sauce, and garnished with steamed and grilled vegetables and a fresh orange that had been peeled, carved, and replaced in the shell. Unfortunately, the dish didn't quite measure up to its gorgeous trappings; I liked the different textures on the plate but found the overall taste a bit bland.
Joanne's sizzling scallops ($15.95), listed on the menu as one of the chef's specialties, also made for a lovely dish, with its riot of snow peas, tomato, carrot, asparagus, bamboo shoot, onion, baby corn, red pepper, and several kinds of mushroom against the white of the (slightly overcooked) scallops. The accompanying black-pepper sauce wasn't very peppery, but it had deep flavor and, once poured onto the heated iron serving plate to sizzle, coated the ingredients like a glaze. But my favorite dish was the simplest, a stellar house fried rice ($9.95) studded with tender slices of chicken and beef and big shrimp--straightforward and downright irresistible, reminding me of those Chinese-restaurant outings of my youth.
For dessert, we shared mochi ice cream ($1.75), which looked like a mushroom cap centered on a large plate--a few tablespoons of red-bean ice cream (other options include green tea, strawberry, and vanilla) encased in a dumplinglike dough and dusted with powdered sugar. Upon dusting it off, we sat back and sighed, then, laden with leftovers, strolled out into the suddenly brisk autumn air.