Owings Mills Eatery Offers a Tasty Mélange of Far East Dishes
It’s not often you find great sushi and Chinese on the same buffet. And it’s not often you find them on the same buffet for an all-you-can-eat price of $13.95 ($7.19 for lunch). But when you find all of this and a sushi chef who looks like John Belushi’s Saturday Night Live samurai, you must be at China Best9(9958 Reisterstown Road, Owings Mills,  363-8160).
Not that sushi is any laughing matter here. Far from it. First of all, there’s a terrifying sign on the wall that threatens customers with a $1 fine for each lump of rice left on their plates. It even scares me, and I’m hardly someone who would pinch the raw fish and leave the rice. It doesn’t help that C.C., a microbiologist, spent the drive to the restaurant lecturing me on tapeworms—the kind you get from eating raw fish.) Still, I enjoy the occasional sushi foray—once I get past my paranoia. With a dab of wasabi, a drape of pickled ginger, and a drop of soy sauce, it’s a nice change of pace, a bracing culinary slap in the kisser.
But tonight we first attack the Chinese side of the buffet. Some of the offerings are undistinguished—the egg roll, the shrimp-and-broccoli entrée, and the pork fried rice, which is slightly (and oddly) sweet. Two soups are offered, a seductive miso broth and a hot and sour that’s achingly sour and filled with humongous, firm, fresh, and flavorful mushrooms.
But some of the standards—shrimp toast, sesame chicken, and beef with black-bean sauce—are absolutely great. The toast’s filling is piled an inch thick, and it tastes like real shrimp. The chicken is crispy-tender in its sesame coating. The flavorful beef is highlighted by crunchy green pepper, onion, and carrot; the combination, dotted with black beans, is quite a colorful dish. C.C. goes wild for skewers of chicken yakitori, and we both savor a tempura version of salmon-and-cream-cheese sushi. (Jewish sushi? Jew-shi?) The most unique offering is New Zealand green-lip mussels, bivalves so big they must have been on steroids, served in black-bean sauce with scallions. It’s a must for mussel mavens. And while most buffets present items that taste alarmingly (and sometimes inappropriately) similar, each of China Best’s offerings is distinct from its compatriots.
C.C. and I dig in, our pleasure marred only by an old gentleman who sits at a nearby table and alternately coughs up phlegm and croaks, “Where’s the dessert?” His son or grandson points out the fresh fruit on display, but the old guy is apparently waiting for a Chinese chocolate layer cake to be wheeled out. I’m certainly not going to share my discovery, the Chinese doughnuts. They don’t have holes, and the sign identifying them says sweet rolls, but they are soft, hot, and dusted with powdered sugar. Like I said, doughnuts. I scarf a couple, then a couple more, until C.C. clears her throat and points with her chopsticks to the warning about uneaten rice.
Over on the sushi side, Belushi and a sidekick are turning out some 30 varieties of sushi, each a small jewel. While I sample salmon roll, tuna roll, and rockfish sushi, beautifully fresh, C.C. falls in love with her first taste of “cooked” sushi. Blesseý with a huge capacity for rice, she eats her way through soft-shell crab roll, California roll, shrimp, Baltimore (crab) roll, eel, and tempura roll. She decides to take home a pound, for a reasonable $9.95. (All evening we notice many folks stopping in to fill plastic containers with takeout sushi. A pound of the buffet’s other offerings goes for $6.95.)
The wait staff couldn’t be more pleasant or helpful. Fresh tea is always at our fingertips, and the servers show patience in explaining the finer points of sushi. The restaurant doesn’t possess much to identify it as Chinese or Japanese, beyond the sushi bar. The large room is softly lit and open, with abundant arrangements of dried flowers. C.C., who usually likes music to complement a meal, doesn’t appreciate the background sounds tonight (Willie Nelson’s greatest hits), but I think it’s interesting to hear what people from other cultures think we Americans want to listen to while fueling up.
But whatever your musical tastes, you’ll like China Best. If sushi doesn’t interest you, the eatery offers a wide range of Canton, Hunan, and Szechwan dishes, most for under 10 bucks. An early-bird special dinner for two, which includes soup, rice, tea, dessert, and two entrées (chosen from a list that includes kung pao shrimp, chicken with spicy black-bean sauce, beef with broccoli, and chicken with cashews), is an unbelievable $13.95. The special is available Monday through Saturday (holidays excluded) from 3-6 p.m.
And don’t worry. I have a hunch that congested senior won’t be back anytime soon, unless someone invents a Chinese chocolate layer cake.