Mamaliga seems out of place next to spring rolls and tuna tartare. The slightly sweet, off-white corn porridge is a staple in Eastern Europe. It's a kind of filler, similar to rice in Asia or the doughy, cassava-based fufu of Africa and the Caribbean. At The Gang, which opened near Midtown during the height of Art Basel, it's rich and satisfying, almost like silky Southern grits. It's served in an open Mason jar topped with a pair of tangy foie gras nuggets surrounded by a garden of bitter baby arugula.
That odd contrast of styles matches the globetrotting narrative of the restaurant's owner, 34-year-old Bogdan Niculae, who also hails from Eastern Europe, where he still owns three restaurants and two nightclubs in Bucharest, Romania's capital. Like The Gang, they're all Asian-fusion places inspired by his trips through the Far East pursuing a passion for Muay Thai, a form of kickboxing that originated in Thailand.
His Miami 90-seater's design is just as eclectic as his backstory. The walls are covered with beat-up subway tiles tacked with vintage-looking ads that look cut straight from a glossy magazine. The burnished hardwood floors with occasional off-colored planks look like they've been trod on for a century. Chairs encircling thick oak tables seem as though they were picked up over months of estate sales. Some are curvaceous, made of form-fitting plastic teetering on metal poles. Other, upholstered options are borderline recliners. Food emerges on bamboo trays or massive slates sprinkled with microgreens from an open kitchen behind a line of washing machines that double as a bar.
But the plates don't match up to the vibe. It's become a common theme for new restaurants filling in around Wynwood. The sizzling arts community and endless blocks of buildings splashed with brilliant murals have attracted near unprecedented buzz and a pack of funky places with middling food like R House, Pride & Joy, and now The Gang.
Such is obvious in the green-tea crab rangoon. The freakish combination of cream cheese and fake crab folded and fried in mass-produced wrappers has sustained countless stoned or drunk college students. I wish I was in such a state when I tried The Gang's version. There's no hint of refinement beyond neighborhood takeout, only a bland, pale-green filling and small, red-and-white nubs of imitation crab. The chili dipping sauce it's offered with — the cloying kind you can buy bottled in an Asian market — also comes with Tibetan spring rolls. The greasy shells hold cucumber spears, thin bits of carrot, and sliced asparagus. Yet the promised prawns were as hard to spot as they'd be in the Himalayan plateaus.
Niculae says his Hangover 2 is a version of tom yum soup he ate in Ko Samui, a small island in the huge gulf east of Thailand. The spicy-piquant broth is indeed reminiscent of the iconic Thai version, with meaty shiitake mushrooms and three sizable, well-cooked prawns. Were it not for a thick film of grease atop the rust-colored concoction and the fibrous, woody bits of bamboo shoots, it might have been a bright spot.
A list of ten entrées demands a bit of refinement as opposed to a complete overhaul. Four minuscule lamb chops arrive a juicy medium rare — a feat that seemed impossible given how thin they are, but the kitchen pulls it off. The quickly sautéed zucchini and cherry tomatoes alongside are fresh and snappy but drearily underseasoned. A smear of spicy red pepper sauce steps in to save the plate.
The same spicy blend is also paired with Korean beef that comes as three thick, medium-rare slices fanned atop tepid, barely grilled red onion rings and a handful of cold, floppy, wood ear mushrooms. When I asked Niculae what cut of beef he uses, he couldn't say anything other than that it's Wagyu, a relative of Japan's über-marbled Kobe beef. The marinade was a secret as well, though the sweet-salty notes rang similar to the soy and fruit juice that's the base of galbi, the grilled staple of Korean cuisine.
Secrets are fine. So is outfitting a space with a funky vibe that jibes with the neighborhood.
But with all of the good options around — including standbys like Gigi, Proof Pizza & Pasta, and Blackbrick within walking distance — newcomers like The Gang have little hope for survival if they can't even execute the basics.