Some pairings just seem improbable -- wasabi and french fries, scallops and macaroni, blueberries and egg roll wrappers -- until a curious soul with an affinity for border crossing presents it to you on a plate. Diners will fall into two camps at this point: those who hesitate, not quite able to wrap their minds and palate around something so weird, and those who dive right in, anticipating and desiring something different. Ginger lovers fall into the latter group.
They also enjoy swanky drinks, a dimly lit bar and Asian cuisine with a playful twist. Ginger is known for fusion food, but the menu is not so much a categorical application of Asian flavors to home-style classics as an energetic culinary experiment grounded in solid technique. Some of the items, like the grilled New York steak bites with blue cheese ($12) are straightforward bistro, while handmade spring rolls ($9) and Thai shrimp noodle soup ($16) need no tampering.
I ordered the mee krob to go ($20) one night, which I have to confess was stacking the deck a bit in Ginger's favor. Ever since the restaurant opened in 2007, I have been wholeheartedly addicted to this spicy melange of rice noodles (never gummy), protein (chicken, pork and shrimp) and unapologetically incendiary jalapeños. As if love wasn't already assured, a gleeful -- yet artistic -- squirt of Sriracha seals the deal. One of my biggest pet peeves with fusion cuisine is the introduction of exotic flavors with none of the bite. Ginger makes no such concessions.
My next visit was with a friend on a busy Friday night, perhaps to even out the mee krob advantage. Managing partner Matt Gill was at the hostess stand and he greeted me warmly, then led me to the only free table in the lounge. It was First Friday and packed, but the magic of the bar is such that each party feels intimately enclosed. Or the magic may lie in the excellent selection of libations, which go down far too easily.
As soon as I was seated, menus and waters appeared within seconds, an indication of a well-trained staff and one that happens less and less often. The staff is one of the main reasons I frequent Ginger; they are professional yet approachable.
My friend and I started off with a couple of Ginger favorites, the spicy tuna tower ($13) and strawberry chili salad ($7). Unfortunately, this is where we experienced our first disappointment. The ahi was fresh but the execution was off; there wasn't enough flavor in the tuna and the avocado salad was a mere afterthought.
Meanwhile, the delicate butter leaf lettuce was quietly wilting under the onslaught of thick, gloppy dressing. This dish is normally a winning compilation but this time I had to satisfy myself with the candied pecans and strawberries. At least it saved room for my broccoli beef entree ($31) and my friend's vegetable katsu ($17). I always like to try at least one vegetarian entree to gauge the kitchen's inventiveness. The katsu was layered with a full complement of textures; silky cubes of tofu, a rainbow's worth of al dente vegetables and toothsome noodles bathed in a savory sauce.
My broccoli beef was the uncontested favorite. The filet was top-notch and perfectly tender. The broccolini and mashed potatoes were worthy sides, with a tangy teriyaki glaze uniting the dish. The Paloma cocktail, a crisp concoction of tequila and grapefruit, lent an acid brightness to the richness of the meal. I found myself thinking that tequila is a better partner for steak than red wine. That may sound peculiar to those who don't subscribe to the Ginger aesthetic, where short ribs and Gruyere meld on sourdough, and kimchi makes an appearance in tacos, but it's something that needs to be tried to be appreciated.
The server offered us blueberry pie egg rolls ($9) for dessert and we didn't hesitate. Not surprisingly, they were both strange and strangely delicious.