When I first visited Asian Court in 2012, the restaurant occupied an unassuming spot in an Ellicott City shopping center on busy U.S. 40. But I was so engrossed with the excellent Chinese food that I didn't pay much attention to the bare-bones dining room.
Then, last summer, the owners — Kay Chen and her husband, Luu Quoc Hung, who is the chef — moved to fancier quarters in Turf Valley Towne Square, about 7 miles west of the old place. The new space is lovely.
Glistening, decorative beads hang from the ceiling, separating the eating area from the bar. (The restaurant doesn't serve alcoholic beverages yet. It is waiting for its liquor license to be approved.)
The color scheme is vibrant and muted at the same time, with reds, greens and orange in the mix. Decorative lanterns dangle prettily around the room. Some of the bare black tables are set with lazy Susans; all have teacups for the complimentary hot beverage.
You're barely seated before your cups are filled and an ethereal wonton soup is brought to you. It's a soothing amuse-bouche during dinner service that sets up your palate for more goodies from the kitchen.
Chen and Hung, who hail from Hong Kong, are veteran restaurateurs. They operated other eateries before running Asian Court.
On our first visit to the new location, we immersed ourselves in dim sum on a Sunday when numerous carts, laden with glorious temptations, were circling the room. The ritual is carried out on weekends from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. On weekdays, dim sum is available to order from the menu until 3 p.m.
The mood was festive as numerous servers steered their carts and we pointed to what we wanted — even if we didn't always know what it was. Of course, we recognized the steamed chicken feet in oyster sauce immediately. We focused more on the delectable dumplings and buns filled with savory items like pork and shrimp, along with the delicious tarts gooey with sweet egg custard.
If you're a fan of offal, you'll want to be on the lookout for the gurney carrying the prized steamed tripe with pepper in black-bean sauce. Asian Court is a place to be adventurous.
But you don't need to be. Careful eaters will find familiar Cantonese and Hunan choices on the menu such as sweet and sour pork, General Tso's chicken and orange beef.
When we returned for dinner another time, we tried several Chinese dishes that were terrific. Rice and noodle offerings like pad Thai and drunken noodles are also available, along with an impressive array of sushi, for which the restaurant recently hired a chef from Japan.
We began our meal with crab Rangoon, six fried cheese wontons that melted in our mouths. Another appetizer, wontons with sweet and spicy sauce, was a zesty pleaser. Our waitress warned us about the dish's fiery nature, but we were nonplussed. Bundles of spirited shrimp floated in a kicky broth that we savored with joy.
The shredded pork with dried bean curd was marked with a pepper on the menu, indicating it was spicy. The combo tasted mild to us, but the flavors were compelling, with strips of sizzling meat intertwined with slivers of tofu, bright-green snow peas and flicks of green onions.
The chicken with broccoli was a tried-and-true mix that transcended the ordinary. Succulent shards of white meat were mixed with a generous number of broccoli florets and coated with a full-bodied brown sauce.
Some Asian restaurants have a separate menu that they give to certain customers. Asian Court shares its "authentic specialties" in English with all of us. Choices range from dishes like pig's intestine and sour cabbage to boneless Peking duck and the house empress chicken (half a bone-in bird that's boiled gently until the meat falls off the bone).
We were bowled over by one specialty in particular, the outstanding fried shrimp, scallops and squid with salt and pepper. The tender, plentiful seafood was enveloped in a light crunchy coating.
When we inquired about a dessert menu, our waitress shook her head, left the table and returned with a plate of jiggly white squares for each of us, explaining they were coconut jelly. The gelatin blobs were a refreshing finish. They can be found on the dim-sum menu, but the restaurant didn't charge us for them, which a manager later told us was standard.
The staff tries to be helpful, though there can be a language barrier. We didn't find it a barrier to a great meal.
While the restaurant is usually packed on weekends, we were the only diners on a mid-week evening, which makes us a little worried about the restaurant's future.
We were pleased when Chen flagged us down as we were leaving the restaurant. She urged us to take a carryout menu so we could use the coupons on another visit.