Restaurant Review: Asian Court a source of fresh, beautiful dishes

Asian Court could be the Chinese restaurant we've all been looking for. There's something for everyone at this unpretentious Ellicott City restaurant. If you're seeking well-prepared classic Cantonese and Hunan dishes made with fresh ingredients and careful attention, you'll be consistently rewarded at Asian Court

And if you're on the hunt for the kind of cuisine we like to call authentic, you'll find plenty at Asian Court to challenge you. In fact, Asian Court helpfully lists these offerings, in English, in a menu section called "Authentic Cuisine." For anyone who has ever suspected that the "real" stuff was being hidden from novice diners, it's nice to have things like sauteed pig's intestine with duck blood, stir-fried duck tongues with chive flower and duck feet with black mushrooms sitting right out there in the open.

If this kind of thing is for you, have at it. If not, there are plenty of completely approachable menu selections in the authentic section. You might even call them crowd-pleasers. It's hard to imagine anyone not taking to the Pork Chop with Salt and Pepper, which has the instant appeal of a favorite family dinner. It's not fancy, but every bite of the hot, peppery coating over tender and juicy meat gives you pleasure.

Another menu item, listed (not very helpfully) as Beef in French Style, was nothing more than a generous heap of cubed beef, lightly floured and quickly fried, served with crisp broccoli florets. It too gratifies instantly, but not in a way that makes you feel like you're being cooked down to. These dishes may look simple, but skill goes into making food that's both indulgent and light. You can eat and eat at Asian Court and never get that full feeling.

The husband-and-wife proprietors are Luu Quoc Hung and Kay Chen. Before opening Asian Court two years ago, they operated a restaurant in Silver Spring, but Chen proudly tells guests about their background in Hong Kong's cosmopolitan dining scene.

If Chen offers you advice about menu selections, take it. She suggested the beef and pork dishes, and marked a carryout menu with things we should get next time: Combination of Meats and Tofu, Shredded Pork with Hot Pepper, Lotus Root Stir-Fry and Shrimp with Salt and Pepper.

The only time we went wrong was when we ignored her advice and refused to believe that we wouldn't like Brisket with Bean Thread, which was served bubbling in a hot pot.

Other than that, we loved what we ordered, even when Chen thought we were tempting fate or could have ordered better. It wasn't obvious how to proceed with a dish of fresh baby clams in the shell with ground pork, but the fresh flavors were worth the trouble it took to eat them. Vegetable-based dishes featuring Chinese broccoli and eggplant had a light, fresh touch. Vegetarian dishes like fried tofu with mixed vegetables, which can be sodden and turbid elsewhere, are zesty and satisfying here.

Hung shows off his version of Hong Kong's famous seafood-based XO sauce in a deceptively simple-looking saute of flounder and crisp vegetables. Yes, it's pretty — there's not a slapdash moment at Asian Court — with vivid, glistening carrots, snow peas and celery. This is no ordinary fish dish; it's a succulent triumph of subtle execution and perfectly handled ingredients. We just weren't prepared to fall so deeply in love.

Although Asian Court looked a little underappreciated on a weeknight — only a handful of tables were occupied — Chen told us that it fills up on Sundays, when as many as 300 people show up for the restaurant's Hong Kong-style dim sum. Actually, dim sum, taken to mean a variety of small-sized savory plates, is available at Asian Court seven days a week, but only on Sunday is it served from roaming carts.

The generic name probably isn't doing Asian Court any favors, but its obscure location is a bigger problem. You could drive down Baltimore National Pike every day and never see its nondescript shopping-center entrance. Deep-blue and sunny gold walls keep the dining room from feeling drab, but don't go expecting tons of atmosphere. Asian Court is neither the hole-in-the-wall spot of foodie legend nor a storefront that's trying too hard. It's comfortable, though, and quiet, and you're free to focus on the beautiful food.

Asian Court has applied for a license to serve beer and wine. That might help it find new customers. But positive word of mouth will probably fill Asian Court sooner, and often.

Asian Court

Where: 9180 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City

Contact: 410-461-3988,

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $2.95-$7.95 ; entrees, $9.95-$22.95

Food: ✭✭✭1/2

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭1/2

[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]

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