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Free Range

Summing Up

Dining a la cart at Asian Court

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden

Dim sum at Asian Court (9180 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, [410] 461-8388, is not for the indecisive. Neither is it for the impatient, the meek, or the control freak. You’ve got to say yes to the deep-fried taro dumplings ($2.95) when the cart passes by or be out of luck, like the table next to us. Ditto for the crescent-shaped pastries filled with shredded barbeque pork ($3.75). “The kitchen only makes a little,” one of the servers says. Don’t stop and ponder whether or not you really want ’em—just grab ’em, and smile contentedly as savory barbecue fills your mouth and slightly sweet pastry flakes into your lap with each bite.

If there’s an art to eating dim sum, aside from arriving early to avoid lines and get first pick at those kitchen specials, I haven’t found it yet. I always end up with too many dumplings, get confused by being able to order dessert during the middle of a meal, and still find it uncomfortable to say no when a server moves to put something on my table that I really don’t want. But those sorts of interactions and split-second negotiations are also part of the joy of dim sum, and the experience at Asian Court on a Saturday morning is ultimately an entertaining one.

So if your table is covered with dumplings, consider it an opportunity to weigh the merits of pan-fried chive dumplings ($3.75) versus taro dumplings versus steamed meat dumplings, their wrappers crimped like a shark’s fins ($2.95). Each has its charms—deep frying gives the taro dumplings a spiky, crunchy crust and the meat dumplings are lighter than their dumpling brethren, but the fresh kick of the chives and the way the green blades glow translucent through the wrapper just edges out the other two in terms of favor and flavor.

If, however, you can be farsighted enough to say no to some of the dumplings, make sure you opt for eggplant stuffed with shrimp paste ($3.75), a stupendous bargain for the price. Three small but stout eggplants are filled to bursting with thick, silky shrimp paste the rich, peachy color of old-fashioned ladies lingerie. The flavor is rich too, making the dish a must for sharing. Steamed Chinese turnip rice cake ($2.95) also boasts a creamy texture offset by the vegetable’s bitter tang, but for the digestive cleansing bitterness can bring, I preferred a plate of steamed Chinese broccoli ($6.95), brilliantly green if a little tough. The latter is not on the menu, but was brought to the table on request.

Although on weekends most of Asian Court’s dim sum offerings are pushed around in carts (during the week, dim sum is available by menu only), occasionally servers approach tables with trays of specials, such as baby clams in black bean sauce ($7.95), a voluminous pile of gray shells and glossy beans yielding umami and salt and only a hint of brine. Meanwhile, carts brimming with sweet puddings, cream buns, and chewy deep-fried sesame balls of glutinous flour ($2.95) pass by, tempting me with pudding before I’ve eaten my meat. Granted, this is only a problem if you have no willpower and can’t allow the dish to sit on the table without nibbling. Color me guilty.

Asian Court’s dim sum menu lists 32 options, but it feels like more as the metal carts spin circles around a dining room that already shines with mirrors, fish tanks, and jewel tones. And somehow in the blur of food we reach capacity without ordering classics such as steamed pork buns or shrimp dumplings, heaven forbid jumping into the rest of Asian Court’s menu, which includes sushi (every day but Wednesday), noodle dishes from across Asia, familiar Chinese favorites such as kung pao chicken and Szechwan beef, and dishes the menu labels “authentic,” including duck tongue stir-fry with chive flower and pigs intestine and sour cabbage. All this from a restaurant, as the takeout menu reminds you, tucked between Davidus Cigar and Goodyear Gemini Auto Care in the Chatham Station Shopping Center on Route 40. No wonder the parking lot is a creative patchwork of vehicles at rest, and the tables inside hum with the rhythm of many languages, both Eastern and Western. Or perhaps it’s because there are so few places in the Baltimore area to order dim sum. In either case, it’s worth the trip to Ellicott City. Just say yes to the cart. ■

Asian Court is open 7 days a week. Dim sum served until 3 p.m. from the menu (weekdays) and by cart (weekends and holidays).

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