A lot of thought went into Wild Ginger's concept and design -- that much is obvious from the moment you step through the doors of this "modern Chinese bistro" in Brooklyn. Carefully crafted to span the rift between fast-food utility and traditional sit-down formality, the pretty space contrasts an artful Asian vibe with all-American pragmatism. The result is an ambiance that works just as well for an afternoon pit stop with the kids as for a casual weekend date.
The clever construct is the work of second-generation restaurateur Chi Lee, whose parents opened the original Wild Ginger in Wooster more than 25 years ago. His Brooklyn location, in a rapidly growing retail corridor just off I-480, was launched in October and serves as a prototype for what Lee hopes may someday grow into a small, local group of such restaurants.
Lee's insight into modern dining trends is 20/20. For instance, you don't have to look far to locate the iconic drive-through window, where call-ahead orders can be snagged without leaving the car, but there's also a smartly accessorized dining room, complete with fountain, bamboo fronds, sculptures, and a soundtrack of wispy flute music wafting through the air. An outdoor patio offers the promise of alfresco dining in warm weather; indoors, a small lounge features a tiny bar, a few high tops, and space for a sushi chef to do his thing. And while the poured concrete floors, paper napkins, and bare tabletops may feel spare and industrial, a full complement of blue-rimmed china, substantial flatware, and contemporary lighting adds a measure of upscale warmth.
Like the vibe, the bistro's expansive menu aims for broad appeal, with offerings that range from traditional Chinese, Japanese, and Thai to burgers, fries, and meal-sized salads. There's a kids' menu, a vegetarian menu, and a selection of sushi, as well as daily lunch specials and a menu for family-style dining. There's also a collection of seven specialty hot teas, a dozen inexpensive wines, and a tempting international beer list.
Unfortunately, all this planning seems to have stopped at the kitchen door: Dully seasoned and pedestrian, much of the fare tastes almost like an afterthought.
Take those disappointing lettuce wraps, for instance. Waterlogged leaves plus an indistinct filling -- the menu calls it diced chicken; a companion swore it was ground beef! -- added up to a major bore. Or consider the flavorless fried calamari: There could have been anything -- or nothing -- inside that greasy tempura coating. And while the menu description advised that the calamari dish was "spicy," there was not a single element of it -- not the bed of crisp rice noodles, not the garnish of red and green bell peppers, and certainly not the gingery peanut dipping sauce -- that merited such a warning.
The highly Americanized selection of maki sushi was a letdown too: sloppily assembled, uninspired in presentation, and heavy on the cream cheese, avocado, and imitation crab. Spicy tuna? Not at all. Tempura shrimp? Just ho-hum. And with six small bites for $5.95, it wasn't a bargain either.
"Do you think they buy this at the grocery store?" a companion wondered. And while Lee promises the sushi is freshly made in the kitchen, we certainly could see her point. (Since our April visits, the dining room's sushi bar has opened, and diners now can judge with their own eyes if their sushi is made to order.)
Of course, not everything disappointed. Vegetarian and pork-filled egg rolls were plump and crisp; same for a shrimp-and-chicken spring roll with a crunchy, nongreasy wrapper. Peking duck was tasty too: The sweet-and-savory assemblage of smoked duck, bouncy steamed buns, hoisin and fruit sauces, and neatly arranged threads of carrot, cucumber, and scallion made for flavorful mix-n-matching -- even though, judging by the scant amount of meat on his bones, the duckling must have been the barnyard runt.
But while we admit to some reservations about the less-than-well-endowed sesame chicken salad, sheer bulk wasn't one of them. There must have been nearly a quart of neatly cut romaine leaves (not the "mixed greens" promised on the menu) on the plate -- and this was a half order, at that. But goodies like roasted almonds and mandarin orange segments were in short supply. And two thin, panko-crusted chicken tenders on top lacked much in the way of taste appeal.
Service, too, had its yins and yangs: While a Thursday-night staffer proved considerate and helpful, a Friday-night waitress fingered the rims of our water glasses, addressed us as "hon," and otherwise neglected us, ignored us, and forgot what we ordered.
Add to that the bland, overcooked moo goo gai pan, the bland, greasy pad Thai, and the bland, pricey "steak & shrimp delight" -- with its few bits of chewy beef, five fresh-tasting shrimp, and $17 price tag -- and we can't give Wild Ginger even a halfhearted thumbs up.
On the other hand, we won't discount it yet either. If Lee and his team would direct even half as much energy toward upgrading the flavor quotients and training the servers as they have toward developing the concept, clearly this spot could rock. Until then, consider this Asian food for people who don't know Asian food. For the rest of us, there are plenty of better options.
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