Firefighters fight fires, and crime fighters fight crime, so what do freedom fighters fight? Why are French sex comedies neither sexy nor funny? If love is blind, what makes lingerie so popular? And why has a spirited scene such as Coconut Grove been perennially bereft of worthwhile places to eat? Le Bouchon is a blissful bistro, Red Lantern serves tasty Chinese, and Bice and Baleen enjoyed their moments in the sun, but since the concoction of CocoWalk, this community's culinary scene has been dominated by franchise restaurants more apt to have singing waiters on roller skates than anything resembling honest cuisine. The Mayfair Hotel & Spa is emblematic of this sordid gastronomic track record: Over the past decade, it has hosted one clumsily operated and short-lived eatery after another. None was nearly as good as the latest occupant, Ginger Grove.
Nor any as comely. Diners enter via a street-level lounge illuminated by a brazenly backlit bar. A limestone staircase leads up to the main dining arena that seats 164. Floor-to-ceiling windows wrap around nearly the entire curved perimeter of the earth-tone space, which is organically outfitted in bamboo, weaves, and natural wood. Tropically themed banquettes are as comfortable as hammocks, and upon one of the silk-paneled walls hangs a nifty collection of Buddha heads. A sprawling rooftop space, aptly called the Rooftop, is scheduled to open in June.
Christian Plotczyk is a familiar albeit not an easily pronounceable name to local restaurant-goers. During the Nineties, he worked as chef at A Fish Called Avalon, as Jonathan Eismann's chef de cuisine at Pacific Time, and as executive chef at China Grill. His initial title at Ginger Grove was consulting executive chef, suggesting he wouldn't be around long, and therefore the presence of his large frame poking out from the kitchen from time to time was reassuring. He has since been hired permanently.
Ginger Grove Restaurant
Mayfair Hotel 305-779-5100.
Open for breakfast Monday through Friday 7:00 to 10:30 a.m., Saturday and Sunday 8:00 to 10:30 a.m.; lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; dinner daily 5:00 to 11:00 p.m.
Ginger Grove's menu, like China Grill's, offers a potpourri of popular Asian options mostly influenced by Chinese, Japanese, and Thai cooking. Appetizers from the first country include a pair of pork dumplings (one steamed, the other fried); steamed long beans; and "Peking duck confit salad," a pile of shredded greens and radicchio with fried won ton crisps and a sweet, bright Mandarin orange vinaigrette. The only shortcoming was the parsimoniousness of duck, snippets of which were so few and far between they had all the effect of poppy seeds in a hot fudge sundae which I suppose makes the $12.50 price problematic as well. Most appetizers are $9 to $12 high but par for the course. Entrées fall between $17 and $21, which is less than places of this caliber usually charge.
"Chinese pumpkin dumplings," a pair of crisply fried won tons shaped like half-moons and pregnant with sweet, exotically seasoned pumpkin purée, aren't anything you're likely to find in Chinatown, and if you did, they wouldn't be plated alongside miso-lime ponzu sauce and pungent Thai-banana ketchup. Yet all three served as playful partners to a couple of plump, grilled shrimp, so soaked in chili-sparked marinade that the interior of the crustaceans were beige. Still they held their crunch and were delicious. A trio of long, pale, lightly fried lobster spring rolls were also worthwhile, pooled in a spicy and sumptuous coral-color sauce made with Thai chili, hints of ginger, and soy milk. Accompanying "wok sautéed vegetables" never materialized, the plate garnished instead with lettuce cups in which to wrap the rolls.
You can identify most of the Japanese-inspired starters by looking for words with ak in them, such as chicken yakitori, vegetarian konny aku, and hamachi tatake. There is no tempura offering per se, but battered-and-fried renditions of eggplant, sweet potato, shiso leaf, and shisito peppers show up as accompaniments to other dishes. There are so many exotic-sounding selections that you might be tempted to bypass the mango-glazed pork ribs. Don't: They are as meaty and tender as can be.
Ginger Grove's food is inventive but at the same time simple and straightforward enough for every palate to understand. The family-style concept of service, however, is a bit confusing. In old-style Italian joints, this implies platters so profusely piled with pasta, meat, and vegetables they require two burly waiters to deliver them to the table. Here the term carries a more contemporary, China Grill-ish meaning: a single portion presented on a plate large enough for two or more people and served without undue allegiance to timing. So what were we to do when a flimsy fillet of miso-marinated butterfish arrived at our table of four? The petite portion of what is also known as Alaskan black cod or sablefish looked fetching with its tempered bronze glaze, laid upon ridged cucumber slices and a trio of tempura shisito peppers with brittle golden crusts. Should we quarter the fillet and draw straws to see who would be deprived of their mild shisito? I didn't wait to find out, unflinchingly flaking off a section of fish and tossing a forkful of rich, translucent, velvety flesh into my mouth splendid with its sweet miso crust.
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Three more entrées on oversize plates arrived together shortly thereafter, joining the butterfish and our four dinner plates on the cramped table. All main courses proved more than satisfying, but that didn't eliminate my desire to grab the wrist of the next person who tried helping himself to my order of Kurobuta pork belly, and saying, "What the heck do you think you're doing?" Perhaps I would have been in a more generous frame of mind if the portion were a bit larger, or if the braised pork, with crisp, sweetly caramelized skin decadently layered with fat, were not so unspeakably delectable.
The only entrée large enough to share was a whole fried red snapper fresh, juicy, cleanly fried, and bathed in a chili-imbued hot-and-sour sauce. "Whole roasted chicken" arrived as a hefty half instead, but any temptation to quibble was quashed by the exceptional moistness of the bird and by a gratifying accompaniment of ginger-flecked chicken meatballs. Those with hearty appetites might want to consider ordering one of the à la carte dishes assuming it will fit on the table. We loved the "crispy rice banana cakes," three domes of alluringly sweetened fried rice.
I was in more of a sharing mood with the desserts perhaps they simply weren't good enough to provoke me toward greed. Then again, nobody really wanted to help me partake of my toasted lemon cake ice cream sandwich, two slices of dry, overly darkened cake with pale, underripe strawberries and a mess of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and chocolate sauce. Mochi ice cream, invented in Los Angeles, is one of my favorites when prepared correctly, which is to say thin, delicate Japanese rice dough wrapped around subtly flavored ice creams. The ones served here, however, were too frozen, too thick, and too artificially flavored.
A good-natured and well-trained staff provided solid service. The floor manager was on the ball as well, swooping by to rescue us one evening when our waiter made the mistake of handing us dessert menus and then disappearing to take the orders from two large tables of diners. It was one small misstep by man, but Ginger Grove represents a giant leap for the restaurant-starved populace of CocoWalk land.