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Review: Ki'Na in Fort Lauderdale is modern Asian that is mixed up and misbranded

 

★★

Let me start with the positives about Ki’Na, a modern Asian restaurant in Fort Lauderdale from the same owners as Temple Street Eatery next door and Christina Wan’s Mandarin House two blocks away. The Willapa Bay oysters from Washington were briny, shiny and a steal for $1 apiece, part of a promotion that allows you to order six for $6 with each cocktail. The accompanying fish-sauce mignonette was an inspired twist, a little funk to go along with the usual vinegar snap.

And chef Vince Tien’s organic-beets appetizer ($14) was among the best dishes I have tasted in recent months, a finely chopped mound of lustrous purple topped with a sunny yellow circle of raw, organic egg yolk. Pickled shimeji mushrooms stood sentry on each side. A streak of smoked black lime salt coated the plate. Tien later told me he puts a lot of prep work into the dish. The time invested is worth it. Break the egg yolk with a chopstick, mix and enjoy. It was like eating vegetarian steak tartare or caviar — the delicate bits of yolky beet produced a creamy and extravagant mouth feel, with the lime salt providing little jolts of spike and spice.

Unfortunately, much about my Ki’Na experience was disappointing and disorienting. The first letdown came before we walked in. A friend made a Saturday night reservation on Friday afternoon and requested the whole Maine lobster two ways, which the online menu said was available if ordered 24 hours in advance. A short time later, she received a phone call from the restaurant — lobster would not be available. Geez, if they couldn’t get their hands on a lobster a day ahead of time, I would have gladly picked one up at my local seafood store, or the Fresh Market across the parking lot, and brought it with me. It seemed strange and a bad sign for a restaurant that has only been open four months.

When owner Christina Huynh (whose maiden name is Wan and whose family has operated Chinese restaurants in South Florida since 1966) later heard the story, she apologized and could not explain the lapse.

Things were also strange when we walked in. It was prime time on the weekend, yet the place was nearly empty. We were seated at a table near a speaker, which cranked loud and jarring techno music. We ordered drinks and some small plates, including pickled cucumbers ($4) that were tasty and crispy Kalette ($12) sprinkled with toasted peanuts and radish slices and slivers of red chili peppers. Despite the small crowd, the Kalette came out cold. A chicken omelet ($13) with bits of chopped kimchee had decent flavor but was sloppy and gloppy, marred by hunks of onion that overwhelmed.

Then, things got stranger. Shrimp-and-chicken dumplings ($13) with peanut and chili sauce were showered with crumbles of a flavorless white substance that looked like queso fresco, but we later learned was coagulated white sesame oil powder. Chinese-Mexican fusion actually came to pass in the form of roasted duck ($28) prepared in the traditional crisp-skin style but served with limp, cold corn tortillas and a bland avocado crema. The restaurant’s website bills Ki’Na as “memories inspired Chinese cooking” but this was not like any Chinese I remembered from anywhere, anytime.

Consider the ora king salmon from New Zealand ($17), a small plate with cubes of marinated fish, avocado, red fish roe, rose petals and microgreens over a sauce of pulverized black sesame seeds. It seemed Japanese in spirit, haute French in technique and dull American in flavor. Tien says he marinates the fish in tamarind soy sauce, chili and sesame oil, but I could not detect them. The coating muted the fish instead of enhancing it.

Expectations and marketing form a huge part of any experience — when a movie trailer gives the impression of a comedy nobody expects to wind up seeing a drama in the cinema — and that was a big part of Ki’Na’s problem. “Ki’Na” means “little kids” in Taiwanese, but this was grown-up food with some modern and very non-Asian twists. To wit, the roasted mushroom congee ($22) was prepared more like high-end Italian risotto than traditional Chinese rice porridge, spiked with foraged wild mushrooms flown in from the Pacific Northwest and black truffles, topped with a poached organic egg and sprinkled with pecorino cheese. Cheese with Chinese? On the night I dined, I was absolutely baffled.

When I returned for a follow-up interview with Tien and Huynh, I tasted the dish again and appreciated it for what it was: a fusion dish showcasing quality ingredients. Tien emphasizes fresh and seasonal, with organic produce from Swank Farms in Palm Beach County and poultry and meats that have no added hormones or antibiotics. The prices and ambitions are high (chicken noodle soup with a sous vide organic breast goes for $20), but the execution and results do not always deliver. When I dined, the chicken soup contained an overly bitter type of bok choy. It is now served with sweeter Napa cabbage. Service was friendly and earnest, but our waitress never asked if we wanted rice ($3) with our meal. Unlike many Chinese restaurants, the white rice here isn’t complimentary but it is supposedly special: premium tamaki gold short grain steamed with Japanese charcoal. Tien says it costs $72 for a 50-pound bag. Perhaps it would be better to add 30 cents to each dish and make the rice free.

To their credit, Huynh and Tien realize they have to rebrand, remarket and revamp. In the gap between my meal and publication, things have already changed. The duck dish with corn tortillas is gone, replaced by a duck breast with orange sauce served with bao buns. Dishes have been added, including a solid (and traditionally flavored) crisp-skinned chicken breast with minced ginger, garlic and scallion.

Tien, 37, a native of Taiwan who went to college in Miami, might have been trying too hard in the beginning. He has obvious talent, and a way with vegetables. He spent five years in Portland, Ore., at a restaurant aligned with an organic farm and cattle ranch, and returned to South Florida to open Ki’Na in October 2017. But he has faced some hurdles, including a kitchen that was originally built for a fast-food Brazilian hamburger joint, Giraffas, which shuttered. For some reason, the kitchen is not equipped to handle a traditional wok.

Huynh’s family (originally from Hong Kong) ran Americanized Chinese restaurants in Miami and Hollywood before she moved Christina Wan’s Mandarin House to Fort Lauderdale in 2005. She has had success with Temple Street Eatery, which her nephew runs. It is a fast-casual restaurant that opened in 2014 with wonton noodle soups, Korean bulgogi sandwiches and chicken wings and has become popular with millennials.

She never expected to have three restaurants in such close proximity, but when Giraffas closed she took over the lease and opened a breakfast-lunch cafe, Kitchen Four Twenty. That failed, and she decided to give Tien a chance. He is doing some ambitious things for Fort Lauderdale, including omakase-style tasting menus for $50, $75 and $100 per person. A close friend from Portland will arrive this week to help him in the kitchen. I hope Ki’Na eventually hits its stride, but my experience makes me wonder if it is one of those restaurant locations that is simply jinxed.

Ki’Na

420 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale

954-900-3107 or KiNaFll.com

Cuisine: Modern Chinese-Asian

Cost: Moderate to expensive. Appetizers cost $3 to $14, small and large entrees $12 to $26. Rice $3. Desserts $6 to $8.

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.

Reservations: Accepted

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Full bar with specialty cocktails and small wine list including plum wine and sake.

Noise level: Loud near speakers. Mellow on patio.

Wheelchair access: Ground level

Parking: Free lot

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

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