It's been almost a decade since Jared Galbut and Keith Menin teamed up to take over the Sanctuary South Beach. The cousins had long run businesses like car washes together as kids and worked in hotels as teenagers, but 2005 marked a next step for the then-20-somethings. Since then, the two, who are principals in the Biscayne Boulevard-based company Menin Hospitality, have gone on to open a property each year in almost every part of South Beach.
Their holdings range from club-kid favorite Pizza Bar to the decidedly casual Bodega Tequila y Taqueria, where the bar's bright sign begs, "Fuck me. Love me." The pair also owns the hip Gale Hotel on Collins Avenue, and in Chicago, another hotel is topped by the speakeasy-style DrumBar.
The pair is now South Beach royalty. They learned the business from their uncle Russell Galbut, heir to a Miami Beach property dynasty. He cofounded Crescent Partners, a real-estate company that helped revitalize South Beach in the early '90s and is now one of the nation's largest developers.
The hip-kid hospitality outfit's latest effort, Red Ginger, opened mid-June in South Beach's trendy South of Fifth neighborhood. It's the first major Asian spot in those parts since Jeffrey Chodorow's China Grill closed in 2012 and was a natural for the area, according to Galbut. "We didn't see an Asian restaurant," he says. "We thought this would fill a void for locals."
The place marks the group's seventh Miami Beach project. It's also one of the most ambitious. Menin and Galbut recruited Herbert Wilson, a onetime Top Chef Masters competitor, whose resumé includes a stint running SushiSamba's Las Vegas outpost. He seemed a perfect fit to run the place that Galbut and Menin planned as a pan-Asian kitchen.
But less than a month after the 136-seater opened, Wilson left with little explanation. A restaurant spokesman declined to comment, and multiple attempts to reach Wilson were unsuccessful. In his place came 33-year-old Anderson Osorio, who's done stretches at Makoto, SushiSamba, and Cvi.Che 105. Similar to past exploits, his two-page menu is split into sections titled "Izakaya," "Robata Grill," "Sushi," "Rolls," and "Entrées."
They await beyond a heavy, intricately carved wooden door guarding a sunset-stained hall lit by orange teardrop lights. In the bar, lights shimmer through towering shelves of liquor that create a clubby aura. Past white brick columns and flowing wood lattices is the main dining space, which is filled with stone-and-wood tables.
The most addictive dishes here emerge from the kitchen. Succulent chicken meatballs arrive atop an oblong pool of tare sauce. The potent blend often made of chicken fat, sake, and soy sauce is ubiquitous in Japanese yakitori joints and works well here to salt the chicken and intensify its umami.
The rest of the dishes inspire mostly déjà vu. There's an open sushi bar where most twin cuts of nigiri or sashimi fall into the $10-plus range. Tuna is offered at varying levels of fattiness and price, though none was available on two visits. A pair of vinegar-cured mackerel slices called shime saba emerged from a salt and then vinegar cure too mealy and sharp-tasting atop a crumbly ball of underseasoned sushi rice.
The golden eye snapper called kinme dai fares better with a meaty texture and punch, but stills stumbles over the poorly dressed grains. The money spent topping each piece with a crinkle of gold flake would have been better invested in extra training in the kitchen. A perfunctory list of inside-out rolls reads like a menu at any sushi joint. If you must order one, opt for the California roll, which swaps imitation crab for warm, buttery snow crab leg meat.
The izakaya section of the menu offers far fewer offenses, though still nothing notable. There's the standard-issue fish mash atop a crisped rice rectangle. The dish, widely credited to famed Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa, is now as a common as a bowl of tepid miso soup. Red Ginger's version purées hamachi with spicy mayo, fish roe, and minuscule shards of serrano chilies. The kitchen should work with a lighter hand. The blend destroys the fish's delicate flavor and texture, leaving behind a crisp fat bomb.
A shallow bowl filled with bitter serrated mizuna greens doesn't offer any hint of the promised sour, pickled plums called umeboshi. Though the salad isn't dressed sufficiently, the beef filling in a bao bun, the same perfect milky-white clamshell you can find in your Asian market's freezer, goes too far. Instead of chopped, sliced, or pulled meat, the filling is a mysterious ground amalgam that's supposed to be tenderloin. The dish is sold as an Asian spin on lomo saltado, but instead of the Peruvian classic's piquant jolt, Red Ginger's version offers just a stab of face-numbing spice.
From here, things improve. Vegetables charred over the robata grill's binchotan coals strike textural harmonies. Purple, red, and orange cauliflower florets hold their bite, while short stems remain supple without turning to mush. A shiso butter glaze adds just the right note of richness and minty acidity. Tender white asparagus spears aren't the thick, in-season variety but still boast pungent, grassy notes. It makes sense. It's the same part of the kitchen that puts out those chicken meatballs. It also turns out six quivering hunks of short rib topped with sticky truffled miso. The dish relies on all of the salty-sweet gimmicks that make these places so addictive, and it's the one your fork or chopsticks will return to again and again.
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The plate most worth a return visit is the humble red snapper. Four of its meaty loins are pan-fried in chilies, soy, ginger, and garlic and then topped with sambal, a pungent Southeast Asian condiment heavily dosed with fish sauce. The result offers crisped edges and flaky, juicy interiors perched atop knots of flat rice noodles. The Viet-Thai garnish of chopped peanuts and red chili helps add a balance of acid and spice, with some richness to boot.
This is the kind of dish for which Red Ginger, or any similar restaurant, should strive. It adds a dimension to an all-too-predictable menu of izakaya, robata grill, and sushi. Red Ginger has the potential to be something special in South Beach, but it needs to concentrate more on standouts than predictable dishes. The Menin magic, which has proven so successful over the past decade, doesn't show up much here. The menu should be focused on a few more limited categories that are as cool and interesting as the company's other properties. If Galbut and Menin can pull this off, they can keep the hip-kid streak alive.
736 First St., Miami Beach; 305-433-6876; redgingersouthbeach.com. Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday 6 to 11 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 6 p.m. to midnight.