Grill Thrill Ain't Gone
When China Grill first opened its doors in the spanking new Thomas Kramer building in 1996, the resultant buzz was so loud it gave other restaurateurs headaches. But the explosively successful opening was not what made this the most influential restaurant in the short history of modern South Beach. Rather it was the forging of the scene-plus-cuisine (plus "attitude") formula, now de rigueur in these parts (though the 'tude is no longer rude), that affords China Grill its quintessential SoBe status. While the Strand had pioneered this concept a few years earlier, China Grill was the first to do it on a grand scale: big 390-seat capacity, big open kitchen, big staff, big-name chef, big-name clientele, big plates of food, and Big Apple credentials. The dining environment in this town would never be the same.
China Grill in many ways hasn't changed at all. The Jeffrey Beers-designed dining room remains impressive -- if anything the years have added a flattering patina of classicism to the elegant space. Hanging sheepskin-shaded lights continue to cast their muted golden glow upon onyx, glass, and Egyptian limestone surfaces and grand cherry-wood columns. Multiple seating levels are unchanged, providing clear sight lines to the kinetic cocktail scene taking place at the bar in the room's center, and to the equally hectic open kitchen behind it.
But most important, China Grill is still a thrill to enter, the loud, thumpy music, mass chattering of diners, hustle-bustle of service staff, and clanging of flatware, plates, and whatnot merging into a great wall of invigorating restaurant clamor that lets you know in no uncertain terms that you are about to experience something very different from eating at home, and more exhilarating than most other restaurants.
China Grill's original "World Cuisine," orchestrated by the talented Ephraim Kadish, was as splendiferously daring as any in South Florida. Christian Plotczyk is now executive chef, but the food here has hardly changed a whit over the past six years -- in fact many of Kadish's dishes remain on the menu, notated by a little CG insignia signifying "classic." The local restaurant scene, on the other hand, has undergone a radical expansion and transformation in the interim; nowadays the only aspect of China Grill that can still be characterized as audacious is the menu's insistence on touting the portions as oversized platters meant to be shared.
The waiters must get tired of repeating the sharing mantra time after time, night after night, but they manage to maintain enthusiasm when suggesting combinations that add up to less than one starter and one entrée apiece (service is solid, handled in team fashion by an army of staff patrolling the room). A table of four will be encouraged to try "three appetizers and four main courses, or perhaps four appetizers and three main courses, or ..." Problem is, many of the portions lean toward the lean, so if this foursome were to split an appetizer of coriander-dusted scallops, they would have to make do with three-quarters of a small sea scallop apiece. No doubt they would enjoy their morsel, as each plump bivalve comes nestled in its shell with roasted Japanese eggplant purée and a dab of lemongrass-coconut cream. Still nothing family-sized about it.
Delicate Kobe beef carpaccio, fired with Thai-spiced, chili-infused oil, will also stimulate most palates in a pleasing manner, but this dish is by nature skimpy. And if the four followed with crabmeat-lemongrass pot stickers, they'd probably end up a bit crabby and sour with their one-and-a-half flat, empanada-shaped, fried, slightly greasy pot stickers pooled in a thin orange glaze. An accompanying "salad" of crisp green pea sprouts and sweet pink scraps of pickled ginger was as delicate as air, and about as filling.
Cost for the three starters, without tax or tip, would come to $67.50. Then again, China Grill was always a pricey proposition -- a check back to its first menu indicates that appetizer prices have risen an average of three to four dollars. On the plus side, there are surprisingly affordable bottles to be found among a wide-ranging array of wines.
Some portions are honestly enormous. Shrimp pad thai, a "noodle of the day" listed under starters, could have fed eight -- assuming they'd be satisfied eating nothing but rice noodles. Just five tiny shrimp, some bok choy, and a scattering of crushed peanuts could be found in our immense tangle of pasta, with no tofu, sprouts, scallions, or egg. A similar lack of spunk marred the lobster mushroom lo mein that accompanied a main course of Chilean sea bass. I was able to overcome an initial disappointment due to my having misread the dish as "lobster and mushroom" lo mein, but wasn't able to get by the three measly slices of mushroom and two specks of tomato, the nest of noodles oozing nothing but the flavor of boiled water. No complaints whatsoever with the sea bass, delectably dusted with panko bread crumbs and ginger, an ethereal miso broth shining brightly in sync with the impeccably juicy flakes of fish.
At least lo mein constitutes a real starch -- I don't consider the huge haystack of potato sticks that accompany sliced Szechuan steak any more of a legitimate side than won-ton chips, corn chips, popcorn, or Cheez Doodles. The nine-ounce dry-aged steak (an eighteen-ounce version is available for $51) was flavorfully marinated and grilled with a sweetly piquant sake-soy-shallot sauce accented with cilantro. The robustly red beef was relatively tender, but not mouthwateringly so -- a good, not great, steak.
Pan-seared tuna steak, same size and rectangular shape as the beef, was mouthwateringly tender, encircled by droplets of sun-dried tomato vinaigrette and Chinese mustard sauce; "avocado sashimi" on the side turned out to be a slice of avocado with shredded daikon radish and wakame seaweed.
Sake-marinated chicken constituted one of the best all-around dishes on the menu, the half-bird crisply grilled and sliced into thick, moist wedges imbued with smoke and spice. A mound of vinegary napa cabbage salad countered with an acidic tang, as did a thin, dark sauce based on rice wine vinegar, miso, and soy; thick tempura onion rings were a nice touch on top. This was one meal that contained enough heft to be tasted by the whole table, and also served to remind that while the food here isn't as exquisite as at the elite handful of our best New World/fusion restaurants, China Grill does serve fresher, lighter, smarter cuisine than the glut of muddled global eateries that regrettably followed in the wake of its success.
Side dishes are inarguably huge, and will more than compensate for main-course scarcities of vegetable and starch. No two are more associated with China Grill than miso mashed potatoes and fried spinach leaves. The former is a clever idea that works well when matched with the right course and sauce, but I'm not a big fan of fried spinach -- the first few crystalline bites are exciting, but the taste becomes less enthralling with each successive forkful.
A better combo would be five-vegetable fried rice and a plate of stir-fried Chinese long beans deliciously cooked in five-spice sauce. The long bean, not seen on many local menus, has a different taste and texture than green beans -- less crisp, with a flavor that hints at the black-eyed pea (which comes from the same family of legume).
Desserts, for the most part, have retained their capacity to dazzle, especially the "classic" chocolate seduction: a wedge of chocolate hazelnut cake rising from the plate, a wafer cone standing even taller upon a base of chocolate ice cream and chocolate-chip cookie; a duo of white chocolate truffles; and a pair of dark chocolate "chopsticks" resting upon two slices of chocolate sushi -- sweet coconut as the rice wrapped around a dark chocolate center. Tasty tidbits, each and every one. Less impressive was an apple "blondie," two more-cake-than-blondie-textured triangles, softly sweet but unspectacular, anchored by a scoop of vanilla ice cream and surrounded by fresh berries and splashes of caramel sauce.
China Grill is what it is, which is the same as it ever was: a big, boisterous, ebullient place to enjoy good, sometimes very good food. The portions may not be prodigious, but the dining experience still is.
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