Green Leaf, an unassuming little jewel of a restaurant, is almost hidden from view in a corner of Shawan Plaza, overshadowed by the Giant supermarket, Ledo's pizza restaurant, Radio Shack and Hallmark store.
But it's worth finding. The York Road restaurant, which opened this year, delivers what it calls "Japanese healthy cuisine," a description that's only partially accurate. The food is healthy as long as one skips the deep-fried wonton dumplings, crispy shrimp and batter-dipped tempura. And, while most of the food is Japanese, Green Leaf also serves pad Thai and a few other non-Japanese items. Owner Fenny Lay calls it fusion food, a combination of American tastes and several Asian cuisines, with an emphasis on healthful fare.
The pretty interior is soothing in every way, from the black-and-jade-colored tables to the sleek wooden sushi bar where customers can sit on high-backed, padded stools as they watch the rolls and sashimi being created. Soft jazz accompanies the splatter and plink of the little blue-tiled fountain by the front door and take-out counter.
In fact, the entire experience is a little like going to a spa, and that's no accident. Lay, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Frank Lay, also works as a skin specialist at La Clinica Day Spa in Lutherville, and she's a regular Nicholas Perricone with her belief that proper nutrition will reward the eater with glowing skin and a calendar that runs in reverse.
Like Dr. Perricone, author of The Perricone Promise and other good-looks-without-surgery tomes, Lay believes in the power of seafood. Accordingly, Green Leaf serves plenty of sparkling fresh sushi and sashimi, from classics such as simple tuna rolls with slivers of tuna surrounded by rice to more exotic combinations like a volcano roll that combines tuna, salmon and fish roe.
For maximum sampling pleasure, order the sushi a la carte and skip the "sushi deluxe," which turns out to be a rather uninspired selection of raw and cooked seafood over rice, plus a half-dozen raw tuna rolls. Wasabi was served on the side, not applied to the rice balls, but on the positive side, the pickled ginger was the best I've ever had, fresher and more vinegary than usual.
Plenty of eat-it-because-it's-good-for-you dishes dot the menu, such as a flaky-moist salmon teriyaki, coated sparingly in sweet glaze and served with steamed broccoli, snow peas and zucchini and a helping of white rice.
Doesn't get much healthier than that.
But it's nice to know the fattening food is available if you want it. Tempura and Japanese fried rice are among the choices for those of us who don't mind a few lines on our faces if it means we can eat fried food.
Deep-fried wontons shaped into calorie-delivering (and presumably wrinkle-imparting) flowers are stuffed with rich crab-infused cream cheese lightened by slivers of scallion. They come with neon-orange duck sauce that's as unnatural in taste as it is in color and only detracts from the greasy and delicious little nuggets.
The same sauce also does no favor to a slightly less caloric option, beautiful little pan-fried dumplings filled with minced chicken with a lovely garlic-ginger zing.
The restaurant's focus on fresh seafood is also showcased in pale-pink dumplings filled with sweet ginger-infused minced shrimp, so fresh they almost tasted of the sea.
Cool, gingery calamari salad, with chewy slivers of squid and shredded seaweed, cucumber and carrot in a sesame dressing is just the thing for a steamy summer day.
The only less-than-wonderful thing I tried was the Japanese pan noodles with chicken, shrimp and vegetables in a heavy, corn-starchy, garlicky brown brew. It seemed like average Chinese take-out instead of the higher standard set by other items at Green Leaf.
This is a restaurant with good bones - a nice atmosphere, fresh, healthful food and good service. I don't know whether it can deliver good skin, too, but it's worth a try.
Where: 11313 York Road, Shawan Plaza, Hunt Valley
Hours: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday noon to 10 p.m., closed Sundays
Prices: Appetizers $3.25-$8.95, entrees $10.95-$18.95
Credit cards: All major cards
Food: *** (3 stars)
Service: *** (3 stars)
Atmosphere: *** (3 stars)