FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Paul Ke, owner and chef at Wild Ginger in Kaimuki, holds two of the house specialties, Red Snapper, left, and Ginger Shrimp.
Fusion spot clutters palate
A handful of standout dishes are successful because of simplicity
Whoever said "the more the merrier" was talking about people, not the act of cooking, but many restaurateurs seem to be confused by the concept, throwing all kinds of things on a plate under the "fusion" banner without regard to how they taste together.
3441 Waialae Ave. at 9th / 738-1168
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays and 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Cost: About $25 to $30 for two
Most of the time you get a jumble of distinct, independent ingredients that are fine alone but do little to complement one another. It's the same as having two fine solo singers who are somehow unable to perform a proper duet together, delivering ear-splitting results. So instead of experiencing an "ah" moment as a payoff, the observer is left responding, "Oh dear."
That's the feeling I had at Wild Ginger, where, as sensible as it might have seemed to offer what they call the "Best of Far East in Hawaii" -- that is, a mix of contemporary, Thai, Malaysian, Chinese and Japanese -- the resulting hodgepodge risks alienating some of the people they're trying to attract. I can imagine the person searching for Chinese food being somewhat disturbed, for instance, by the Thai-ification of what could have been straightforward Chinese dishes, and vice versa.
But understandably, they want to try something different because the previous tenant, a Chinese restaurant, didn't last.
Wild Ginger defies easy classification, so it requires that diners keep an open mind. That is asking a lot, because I find most adults to be quite set in their culinary tastes. Life is also so confusing that I imagine most people want food they can understand, in the same way they tend to cling to the same old romantic comedy or mindless violence formulas in film. (Don't deny it. I've seen the flowchart of movie revenue for 2007, and none of the Oscar nominees did very well at the box office.)
On the one hand, Wild Ginger is capable of putting out some simple, enjoyable dishes. On the other is a tendency toward overkill, especially on "special" dishes that overwhelm with sugar and salt. The best part of the equation is a spice element, which I'll talk about later.
I LIKE Wild Ginger's food best at its simplest. Those watching their diets might be able to feel similarly pleased and empowered while enjoying Lite Delights like basic steamed broccoli or mixed vegetables ($8.50) served alone or with a choice of tofu, chicken, pork, beef, sea bass or shrimp ($8.50 to $10.50). You can have this with a soy-based sauce or light, mild garlic sauce tossed with the ingredients or served on the side to add to your taste.
You also won't go wrong with other dishes that play it straight, such as Vietnamese summer rolls ($4.95), pad Thai ($8 to $9.50), bacon-wrapped shrimp, or laksa ($10.50), a coconut curry featuring beef balls, shrimp, beans sprouts, tofu and basil.
Meanwhile, a salad of lettuce topped with the green seaweed sold at groceries as "ocean salad," and strips of mango -- between green and ripe states -- made little sense to me. It wasn't bad and I'm sure it's healthy, but all the ingredients simply sat separately, like second cousins somehow related yet unable to relate to each other.
On the South East Asia portion of the menu, you're presented with a roster of 10 sauces, from sambal to spicy mango, to accompany sautés ($8.50 to $10.50) of chicken, pork, tofu, beef, fish or shrimp. The difficulty is in finding the sauce you like. If you succeed the first time, consider yourself lucky. I was disappointed by the Szechwan peppercorn and garlic sauces, although I do hold out hope for the Thai curry. Otherwise the garlic sauce had little garlic flavor; the peppercorn sauce lacked pepper and, worse, was sweet.
This might not be entirely the restaurant's fault. Food was much spicier upon opening, but because few can take much fire, the heat level has been toned down to nil and diners must request to have the heat restored. That touch of peppers was exactly what was needed in a dish of Sambal Delight, a stir-fry of shrimp, scallops, chicken and vegetables.
Crispy red snapper ($15.95) is one of the most popular dishes. Breaded, deep-fried and coated with a thick red sweet-sour sauce, this shows that not everyone cares for the KISS rule, and that's fine. They've found their kind of place.