There ought to be a separate category of restaurants known as Expensive Habitants of Miami Beach.
Just as you can count on wood paneling in steakhouses, the over-the-top restaurants of Miami Beach specialize in astonishing interiors, jaw-dropping presentations and soundtracks that make every diner feel as if they've happened upon the coolest party on the beach.
Then, there's Red Ginger, open since June in an area of South Beach that was once mostly a restaurant wasteland — save Joe's Stone Crab — but now houses some of my favorite spots for a night out in South Beach.
Red Ginger is, in many ways, the pan-Asian replacement for China Grill, which closed in 2012 after 17 years at the corner of Washington and Fifth. In the late '90s, China Grill was one of the most exciting restaurants in South Florida, and I consumed more than my fair share of Shanghai lobster and crispy spinach there. China Grill has since reopened across the causeway.
All these years later, nothing about Red Ginger feels particularly novel. You open the big, carved wooden doors onto a ramp that leads you to the hostess stand. One side of the restaurant holds a bar and lounge, the other side a 136-seat dining room set with tables and big, white, upholstered booths with cutout wood reliefs as dividers. Next to similar spots, Red Ginger feels cramped and somehow smaller than its 3,300 square feet, especially on the walk from the front door to the table. While much has been done to buffer sound, it's noisy when full.
We'd heard about the restaurant's massive whiskey collection, but why isn't there a printed menu so that diners can see prices and provenance, rather than relying on what a server remembers? There are some very fine cocktails, however, including the Prenup ($16), made with gin, vermouth, lemon juice, honey syrup, Greek yogurt and blueberries for garnish.
The menu is divided into four categories: Izakaya ("drinking house" in Japanese), robata grill, sushi/sashimi and dishes. From the Izakaya section, we started with salmon taquitos ($12) on the advice of our waiter, who suggested they might be a refreshing way to begin our meal. As with every small-plate restaurant, dishes here arrived in no particular order. The taquitos are rice-paper-wrapped tacos filled with pickled jicama, tobiko, spicy mayo and nori. They had a deviled-ham quality that I'm still not sure I like. Rock shrimp ($15), tempura-battered and fried, were tossed in a combination of black truffle and what's described as citrus but tastes like yuzu. The addition of kataifi, the shredded phyllo dough found in many Middle Eastern desserts, is a pleasant textural addition.
From the robata grill, we ordered short rib ($15) with truffle miso and micro chives, which I found to be a little greasy, perhaps shorted on braise time. The grill, however, did a nice job bringing out the best qualities of cauliflower ($8) with shiso butter. Less successful was broccolini ($8), an ordinary side dish doused with ginger soy.
There are just a half-dozen rolls ($11-$22) on the menu, and we were drawn to Kobe beef ($22), believing we were ordering carpaccio. But this was cooked beef, which took over from every other ingredient in the roll: shishito pepper tempura, avocado, caigua or wild cucumber, burdock root and sesame seed. It was like a messy cheesesteak meeting a delicate roll. It should be rethought.
From the dish section of the menu came tender skirt steak ($28), flavored with soy and fish sauce. Shrimp pad thai ($23), with roasted pineapple, plantain citrus and tamari included some of the most overcooked rice noodles I've been served in a very long time. They practically fell apart when we moved the mixture from serving bowl to small plate.
While much of the savory side of the menu was ho-hum, the dessert offerings were downright dismal. Why would Red Ginger serve mochi ($10)? It's the equivalent of vanilla ice cream in an old-fashioned Cantonese joint. Where's the almond cookie?
There was also Japanese bread pudding called tobanyaki ($12), which looked and tasted as though someone had left their morning cereal on the counter for a few hours. It was just plain weird, and not the stuff that makes for a night in South Beach.
736 First St., Miami Beach
Cost: Expensive-very expensive
Hours: Dinner daily
Reservations: Strongly suggested
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: On the loud side when full
Outside smoking: No outdoor seating
For kids: Highchairs
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: $15 valet