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A growing appetite for sushi

In the race to open more sushi restaurants per square mile than anywhere else in Maryland, Towson had been pulling ahead. But now, with the new Chiu's Sushi Japanese Restaurant in Inner Harbor East, I'm not so sure. Downtown seems to be staking its claim once more.

Still, owner Tom Chiu says he decided on the location because "Downtown needs a traditional sushi restaurant."

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I don't want to get into a debate on a subject I don't know enough about, so I leave it to others to decide whether Chiu's is more or less traditional than Kawasaki, Shogun, Minato, Matsuri and the others. What I do know is that this is a pleasant, moderately priced little restaurant with a wide assortment of sushi and, yes, you can find a parking place.

If the name sounds familiar, it probably is. Tom Chiu is the brother of Joey Chiu, who introduced the concept of Chinese food in upscale surroundings to Baltimoreans with his three restaurants, the Bamboo House in Cockeysville, the Bamboo House in Harborplace (now defunct) and Joey Chiu's Greenspring Inn in Lutherville.

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His brother Tom is originally from Hong Kong, but he specializes in Japanese restaurants as opposed to Chinese -- first Sushi-Ya in Owings Mills, and now Chiu's Sushi. If the new restaurant has more polish than you might expect so soon after its opening, it's because much of the staff is from the Owings Mills restaurant, so they know what they're doing.

Chiu's is a pretty little place with booths along one wall, the requisite blond wood tables and chairs, a sushi bar in back and lanterns decorating the ceiling. At first glance, it doesn't look that different from other sushi places, but notice the details, and you'll see the design wasn't done on a shoestring.

Like the decor, nothing about the food here will startle you. The emphasis is on sushi; other Japanese dishes take a back seat. Accepting the inevitable -- that Americans like sushi but are wary about raw fish -- Tom Chiu has added a couple of alternatives to the mix. There is, of course, a vegetable sushi assortment; but the nonraw sushi assortment is more intriguing. Here you get toppings for the rice like a slice of broiled fresh water eel (delicately flavored and with a texture something like shad), a giant shrimp, smoked salmon, a crab stick, octopus and a little bundle of bright yellow omelet "sticks" circled with a black band of seaweed.

California roll, of course, is a staple, even on the Chiu's Deluxe sushi dinner. It's balanced with nine pieces of nigiri (the oval-shaped sushi) topped with glisteningly fresh raw yellowtail, salmon and tuna as well as some cooked varieties.

Of course, any of these can be had a la carte. The broiled eel with a faintly sweet sauce and the octopus in a vinegar sauce, both on a bed of shredded Japanese radish, shine as appetizers. Squid marinated in sake and topped with a tiny jewel of a raw quail egg should also not be missed.

Chiu's has starters more attuned to traditional American tastes. Delicate steamed dumplings are fat with shrimp paste, and pink crab stick forms the basis of summer rolls wrapped in pale green lettuce leaves -- this to me is more appealing for the visuals than the taste.

Not interested in sushi, even the cooked varieties? Chiu's has almost grease-free tempura with a reticent golden batter. Teriyaki comes in all shapes and sizes, including a combination plate -- small skewers of plump sea scallops, shrimp, tender beef and chicken.

Dinner starts with a tiny bowl of crunchy green peas, dried with a wasabi-flavored coating. Then comes a very pretty miso soup, and a very ordinary iceberg lettuce salad with orange ginger dressing.

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Desserts at Chiu's break no new ground. There's ice cream or banana fried in tempura batter or mochi (ice cream bonbons with a coating of rice flour). The check comes with various little favors: Japanese jellies and tiny, fruit-flavored bubble gums. Too bad the tea ceremony at the end consists of bringing the customer a mug of hot water and a green tea bag.

Chiu's, like its sibling in Owings Mills, does most things right, tea bags notwithstanding. Although downtown isn't exactly a wasteland as far as Japanese food is concerned, another good sushi place is always welcome. Especially here, where it can serve as a neighborhood restaurant for Canton and Fells Point.

Chiu's Sushi

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

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Where: 608 S. Exeter St., Inner Harbor East

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$9.95; main courses, $11.95-$24.95 (for two)

Call: 410-752-9666

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *


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