Joey Chiu's occupies what is actually an addition on the back of a drab building. The building is drab, but the addition is swell. If you ran a restaurant, the structure's clean, contemporary lines and dramatic wall of windows might inspire you to cram it full of midcentury modern furniture.
I prefer what Joey Chiu's has done, which is to treat its modern home with serene disregard. The effect is pleasing, and the plush furnishings and peach and gold colors suggest a well-maintained beach condominium. It's a restful room, and something about the decor enforces mature behavior, which is the way Joey Chiu's diners like it.
It was a pleasure to speak in normal voices for a change, and I ended up having a lovely time at Joey Chiu's. Our table spoke of many things, including the abiding pleasures of Chinese food, and especially of our admiration for the folks at Joey Chiu's, who know exactly how to please their customers but gracefully, without condescension.
Joey Chiu's cuisine includes two generations of American Chinese food. The principal part of the menu consists of second-wave classics like Hunan chicken, Mongolian beef and General Tso shrimp. A separate page lists "old favorites" from an earlier generation, things like chicken chow mein and egg foo yung. Joey Chiu's is not the place to come for pork belly, fish noodles or tripe. There's no secret "real" Chinese menu here that insiders know to ask for. Joey Chiu's is what it is.
There was a guest at my table who couldn't hide his disappointment, but by the end of the meal, he was a convert. It was a nifty little appetizer that first persuaded him — sauteed string beans bundled into thin pancakes. I liked this presentation, and I loved how snappily fresh the string beans were. Also persuasive: a plate of delectable fried squid that had been lightly sauteed in garlic and ginger.
There's a way to do basic Chinese food with integrity and purpose, and that's what Joey Chiu's does. The basics we tried, moo shu pork and crispy beef, were not reinventions or reimaginings — Joey Chiu's isn't trying to pass them off as spa cuisine — but they're tasty and satisfying and portioned generously.
And then, if you look carefully, there are things on Joey Chiu's menu that go a step beyond the ordinary. Specials when we visited included fried oysters and soft shells, prepared in a choice of three basic styles. These were both good choices. The oysters were pleasantly plump and briny under a crisp coating. The soft shells, fried and then sauteed in the house's "aromatic spices" (basically ginger and garlic), were presented quite handsomely, chopped and arranged in pieces suitable for chopsticks. (This was a relief for a friend who was trying soft shells for the first time.)
And then there are permanent menu items that are intended for the occasional splurge. Some of them are high-end Chinese restaurant classics, like Peking duck and whole fish (rockfish here), and some are for diners who have zero interest in Chinese food, such as a simple grilled salmon fillet, a rack of lamb and a sizzling sirloin steak, sauteed with onions and mushrooms, a signature item at Joey Chiu's from the beginning.
We talked ourselves into the whole rockfish but let ourselves get talked out of having it fried instead of grilled, which produces something endlessly succulent and crunchy. Grilling is a genteel and decorous preparation, and Joey Chiu's handles it with considerable finesse, producing fish that's agreeably moist and sweet.
Joey Chiu's is in very good hands. We were recognized as new customers by the owner, who made several solicitous visits to our table and helped us find the menu's gems. She wasn't nearby, though, when we ordered a sashimi starter and she later acknowleded that she deliberately didn't suggest it — it was the sushi chef's night off. But she was adamant about his creativity and skills, and encouraged us to return to see for ourselves.
When we finished dinner, we were the last table left. For one thing, it's an early-dining crowd here. For another, we lingered long past the restaurant's closing time without knowing it. That tells me a lot about the concern and respect Joey Chiu's has for its customers, and why customers, in return, have remained so loyal over the past 20 years.
The mention of Joey Chiu's sometimes elicits an ironic smile, but I just plain liked it.
Joey Chiu Greenspring Inn
Where: 10801 Falls Road, Lutherville-Timonium
Hours: Open for dinner daily, for lunch Monday-Saturday and for Sunday brunch
Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$11.95; entrees, $11.95-$33.50
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭ ✭✭; Fair or uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭]