I regularly get asked where to eat around the airport. I'm not sure why. Maybe people like to get close and relax before a flight, or want to have dinner immediately after picking up a passenger. But it doesn't matter, because I never have a good answer for them.
Recently, though, I learned that local celeb chef Edward Kim had become executive chef of Luminous, the restaurant in the Westin Baltimore Washington Airport. Kim opened Ixia in Mount Vernon, then moved on to open his own restaurant, Soigne in Locust Point, and later worked as head chef at Saffron (now Indigma) in Mount Vernon before leaving town.
When I called Kim, he said he wasn't doing the day-to-day managing of the kitchen. For that, he had brought in his sous chef at Saffron, Dan Ennis. But he had created Luminous' Pan-Asian menu, which he called a step up from P.F. Chang's - a reference to the upscale casual dining chain. In other words, Luminous' menu isn't as wildly inventive as some of Kim's menus have been in the past.
Still, it sounded good to me, the kind of place I might legitimately recommend to those folks who wanted an airport restaurant that wasn't in the airport.
Well, after my evening there - and I do mean evening, as in whole evening - I'm still looking.
Not that there's much wrong with the food, which is a bit uneven but basically decent. The wine and drinks list is respectable; no better or worse than you might expect at a hotel dining room. And the restaurant itself is modern, expensive-looking, Asian-inspired and comfortable. We walked through a happening bar, where some people were eating, to get to the handsome dining room. It was almost empty.
Just past the hostess station was a row of enclosed booths, which almost felt like small private dining rooms. We asked to be seated at one of those.
Big mistake. Sit there and if you want to flag down your waiter, you have to go hunting for him.
And we did want to flag down our waiter. He was a nice guy, and he may have been the only server working the restaurant and bar that evening - at least it seemed that way. But there were little problems and big problems with the service, some of which must have been the kitchen's fault and some of which weren't.
For instance, our waiter poured everyone a glass of water but me, then left to refill the pitcher and didn't return for a long time. That wouldn't have seemed so odd if I hadn't been the only female.
All of us waited forever for three glasses of wine and a martini. The server finally came back to say that the bartender was very busy, something he should have done 15 minutes before.
The wait for the food itself was unconscionable. We would have been more understanding if our waiter had stopped by to say something. (Although what could he say? The dining room was empty.) The wait for each course was worse than the last.
This is the first time I've ever asked for the check at the same time I ordered dessert.
The waiter also brought one of us the wrong entree. My friend ordered udon noodles with scallops; he got the Duet: a shrimp, scallop and vegetable stir fry. Even though the server came back eventually with noodles after we complained, the (higher-priced) wrong dish appeared on the check. Just when we thought we were about to escape, we had to get the check adjusted.
All this was too bad, because otherwise we would have enjoyed our food, plated with an Asian sensibility and good enough to be worth a stop on the way to or from the airport.
Most of the appetizers are protein-rich. Delicate pot stickers stuffed with chicken and balanced with a seaweed salad were surprisingly filling, and a spring roll was fat with shredded duck meat.
Rings of calamari fried in a wok and flavored with hoisin sauce and bit of ginger were so tender and light they almost floated in the handsome bowl they were presented in, but they still made for a substantial first course.
One of the few non-Asian first courses was the Maryland crab bisque with sherry and lump crab. On second thought, the crab probably was Asian this time of year.
But then there was the "petite panko crab cake" appetizer. "Petite" pretty much sums it up. It was about the size of a half dollar, and not made from lump crab. Even with the delicious wasabi aioli and seaweed salad, $12 seemed pretty steep.
The non-petite crab cake can be had for $30 as a main course, but if you feel like seafood, I would instead order the miso-glazed sea bass, firm and flaky white. It comes with mushrooms and bok choy, and your choice of wasabi mashed potatoes or jasmine rice. (Oddly, my friend was given the choice; I wasn't asked which I wanted with my entree.)
Still, I was perfectly happy with the braised short ribs with a Mongolian barbecue sauce. They fell apart at the touch of a fork. Garlic spinach and baby carrots (real ones; not the cut and shaped kind) added color and flavor to the plate.
Most of the nine appetizers and six entrees are inspired by Japanese cuisine, but there is a chicken tikka masala that didn't taste like the traditional Indian version but was very good. The sauce had more curry and less cream.
As for the udon and scallop dish, my friend noticed there were no noodles and told the waiter, who took it away. When it came back it looked as if the kitchen had simply dumped the Duet (scallops, shrimp and vegetable stir fry) on top of a few, but not enough, noodles. That would have been OK, I guess, if my friend liked shrimp.
As for dessert, the kitchen had run out of the chocolate espresso mousse earlier in the day, but there was a Tahitian creme brulee. I'm not sure what made it Tahitian unless it was the vanilla bean. I would recommend instead the basmati rice pudding with golden raisins and pistachios, or the banana spring rolls with caramel and ice cream.
You can always make do with the fortune cookies available at the entrance instead of mints. Only, don't think you'll get your fortune told. They contain ads for Luminous.
We didn't ask for coffee and the waiter didn't offer.
All of us were ready for the evening to be over.
luminous Address: Westin Baltimore Washington International Airport, 1110 Old Elkridge Landing Road, Linthicum
Hours: Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Prices: Appetizers, $7 -$14; entrees, $15.50-$32.
Food: ** 1/2
Service: * 1/2
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]