Red Ginger

(Traverse City, MI) — We’re lucky enough to have good friends who live, part-time, in Traverse City so when we travel north, they usually join us on our foodie adventures. While attending the annual film festival, we manage to book early dinner reservations at one of the more popular restaurants: Red Ginger. The four of us meet on a very warm Saturday afternoon for a meal with some Asian flair...

He Fed:

I arrive before the others because my movie lets out earlier than expected. No matter; I find an empty stool at the bar and order a beer, eager to cool down after the unseasonably hot temps outside. I sit and sip, then hear a conversation at my elbow. Holy cow! It’s the magnificent Michael Moore, in deep conversation with fellow filmmaker Jay Roach! I try to act cool because deep inside, my fanboy alarm is going off at full tilt. Truth is, I am less than loquacious or graceful when meeting true talent so I become a shrinking violet. After a few minutes, they move along to their next gig and I am somewhat relieved they did not notice me. Moments later, Juliet and our friends John and Di show up, so I explain excitedly what transpired before we are shown to our table, past the sushi counter, all the way to the back of the restaurant.

The mood is festive, so I order us a bottle of Nicolas Feuillatte pink champagne to start. It’s a bit too sweet for my tastes—I prefer a less sweet, dry sparkling wine—but everyone else seems to enjoy it. We have plenty of time before our next scheduled film viewing, so our pace is set purposely slow. From the small plates section of the menu, we choose two apps: Edamame and Calamari. Steamed soybean pods are prepared simply, with just a sprinkle of sea salt. You chomp down on an end, then pull with your teeth to release the beans into your mouth. The pod, too fibrous for consumption, gets tossed aside. I’m not a huge fan of edamame or the work that’s involved for very little food, but it’s not bad. The rice-dusted calamari with Korean Kochujang vinaigrette, however, is a joy to eat. Sweet, sour, with just a little chew to them, the squid turn out to be addictive. There is no small amount of competition for the last few morsels.

Before we delve into main dishes, sushi seems to be in order. I’m becoming more adventurous when it comes to seafood and John, having been several times to Japan, is more than game for whatever we want. The ladies, however, are not quite as bold; they decide upon Chef Dan’s Signature Roll with butter poached shrimp, asparagus, Japanese aioli, apple wood smoked bacon, white truffle, and soy paper. I try a bite and the bacon is a nice touch, but otherwise I’m put off by the truffle and shrimp combination. My choice is the Unagi Roll with broiled fresh water eel, enoki mushroom, cucumber, and eel sauce. It’s smoky, salty, and just a tad chewy. I’ve had better eel recently, so I’m not exactly blown away. Happily, I offer the rest up to my dinner companions. Likewise, I’m not really digging the Yellowtail (Hamachi) sashimi. It’s a bit too in-your-face on the front end, though the smoky-fishy odor dissipates pretty quick. Seems like I’m just not in the mood for sushi after all!

At this stage I’m feeling like I need to get to the opposite end of seafood, so I select Thai Curry for my main plate. Rather than chicken or shrimp, though, I go for locally organic tofu. (Lately, since Juliet has made some exquisite Ming Tsai recipes, I’ve been jonesing for tofu.) The green curry and coconut milk has roasted Japanese eggplant, white mushrooms, and bamboo shoots all topped with jasmine rice. I’m slightly disappointed to find the curry taste is exaggerated, no trace of subtlety, almost a caricature of Thai cooking. Juliet takes a bite and seems to really like it, so maybe my palate is unbalanced. (I take a bite of her Kung Pao and immediately wish I’d ordered that instead.)

We finish up with the Red Ginger Trio which includes bite-sized versions of their signature desserts. Black and White is a flourless chocolate cake, warmed, with vanilla ice cream on top. A mini cheesecake of white chocolate and raspberry coulis is my favorite, with whole bean vanilla and toasted almonds. Mango sorbet helps cleanse my palate, cold and fruity.

The service is good, maybe a little too starched, but solid. Overall, my first experience at Red Ginger isn’t the best...more a collection of high points accentuating monotone dishes. When we’re back in town, I’d probably go back to try a few other dishes to see if I simply chose unwisely this time around.
She Fed:

The sidewalks are packed and we have to snake our way through the crowd. It’s also hot and humid, so the chilly blast of air conditioning that greets us as we enter is welcome. The restaurant is boisterous and busy, though we are seated immediately and our server is quick to bring big ice waters.

Jeremy orders brut champagne to start. What’s more fun that beginning with bubbles? Maybe a table full of appetizers! The boys are hankering for sushi so they order the unagi rolls—broiled eel with enoki mushrooms, cucumber, and eel sauce, as well as the yellowtail sashimi. As a nod to us girls who just aren’t really up for sushi, they add “Chef Dan’s Signature Roll” with butter poached shrimp, asparagus, applewood smoked bacon, white truffle oil and a garlic chip. We also get the edamame and calamari.

The edamame arrives, steamed pods sprinkled with chunky sea salt. I’ve never eaten soybeans like this and after one bite I’m hooked. You pop the pod in your mouth, bite down a bit and the soybeans easily pop out as you pull. The verdant soybeans combined with the sea salt are divine. And addictive; we polish off the bowlful in no time.

The calamari is dredged in rice flour, a light crisp coating complemented by spicy sweet sauce made from Korean chili paste. Black sesame seeds give a visual contrast and a nice crunch to the dish. The calamari is cooked perfectly, tender with only a hint of chew.

I’m not a big fan of eel, so I avoid the unagi, but find the hamachi to be pleasant. I dip it in soy sauce seasoned with both wasabi and pickled ginger. It’s so good I decide to order more sashimi if we skip entrees.

The special sushi rolls are flavored decadently. Smoky crisp bacon, luxurious white truffle oil, grassy tones from the asparagus, buttery shrimp and the toasted garlic chip all intermingle, thankfully tempered by the white sticky rice. I know it’s not true sushi, but it’s so good I begin to plan my next trip to Traverse City just to get more of this dish.

As we finish the last of the bubbly, Jeremy suggests we order a round of cocktails. I’m guessing we might order one or two more appetizers to share in lieu of dinner. I order a lemongrass martini and start perusing the sashimi section, thinking the tuna or salmon would be good.

Turns out the group is going full steam ahead with entrees. I’m leaning towards either the shrimp udon or Thai curry when John and Jeremy profess their interest in those dishes respectively. I decide to try something I’d never normally eat: Kung Pao shrimp. Kung Pao is usually heavily-battered, overly deep-fried and too sugary for my taste. Not that I don’t like a good fry up, but I’ve never had good Kung Pao.

Until tonight. Sauteed shrimp (no breading or deep frying!) are succulent, sweet and briny. Bright green snow peas are cut in half while the carrots are roll cut, which yields more surfaces than a standard slice and makes for a special presentation. The veg is perfectly cooked, crisp tender. The sauce is slightly sweet with a kick of heat. There’s a generous smattering of crunchy peanuts and a mound of scallion strips atop it all. This is one of the best stir-fries I’ve ever had and puts just about every Asian take-away I’ve had to shame.

John gives me a taste of his shrimp and crab udon with a mustard creme sauce which is a delight. Then I try a bite of Jeremy’s tofu Thai curry and am smitten. I am a sucker for coconut curries with rice. It’s like the Far East version of mashed potatoes with gravy to me. This curry is rich, sweet and spicy and I sneak three more bites. Not that he cares. He’s not as keen on it as I am.

For dessert I order a second lemongrass martini, a bright and tart finish to the meal. I loved every single bite tonight and would come back in a heartbeat. I’m getting the vibe Jeremy might need some convincing though.

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