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I write a lot about what diners should and can expect from restaurants. Most of the qualifications are givens: decent fare at reasonable prices in inviting surroundings. And when an eatery fails to live up to my, and subsequently your, expectations, I make sure to let readers (and restaurateurs) know.
Recently I found myself on the receiving end of such criticism. At Ginger Bay Cafe, a two-month-old nouvelle pan-Caribbean spot on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, proprietor Jimmy Banks has certain hopes of his customers. And he's not shy about discussing them.
Banks confided one of these requirements to my party and me when he stopped by our table to ask about our dining experience. We'd noted to him that the storefront eatery, a stunning, Jamaican flag-hued confection of whimsical banana-leaf fans, mosaic-tile bar, and brocade-seated chairs with carved, painted backs, seemed to be attracting a good deal of attention from some rather well-heeled passersby. (Drunken Boulevard riffraff, on the other hand, didn't spare the place a glance on their way to the dives across the street.)
1908 Hollywood Blvd.
Hollywood, FL 33020
He nodded in satisfaction. "We're getting qualitative customers," he said, "and that's who we want." I'm pretty sure he meant to say "quality." In other words he and wife Sharon, the chef, are drawing in folks who will not only pay the relatively high-end prices for an entrée but will order a three-course meal and a snifter of rare rum, like the Pyrat XO Reserve from Anguilla, to boot. As if suspicious that perhaps we weren't quite the kind of clientele he had in mind, Banks then queried us about what dishes and how many courses we'd chosen.
I'm not certain where we fell on the "qualitative" scale, though we must have been pegged as acceptable since we weren't kicked out or asked to wash dishes. Nevertheless Banks should know that he's attempting a concept -- if you open a high-end restaurant, customers will come -- that's been tried and has failed in this part of South Florida, most notably at now-defunct places like Revolution 2029 on Harrison Street and Impromptu on Hollywood Boulevard. Visitors might flock to this kind of upscale joint, but residents probably won't be paying those prices ($16.50 to $27.50 for main courses) night after night when they can dine at the cheaper ethnic joints that prevail in this part of town.
That said, Ginger Bay stands a chance of long-term success. That is, if the restaurant can clear up a few oopsies, like the fact that tables for two are much longer than they are wide, so couples who sit at them have to shout if they want to converse and practically have to throw food at each other if they want to share. The eatery doesn't carry iced tea (a South Florida absolute) or regular ol' milk, and coffee is left on the burners so long that half-and-half turns it as gray as the hide of an elephant. If you desire a more gourmet cuppa joe -- like, say, a decaf cappuccino -- prepare yourself for instant. The stuff comes out of a push-button machine, and on the night we visited, the eatery had actually run out.
Indeed Ginger Bay regularly runs out of supplies that should be staples, like the conch that comprises a charter entrée. But our well-meaning server eventually scrounged up an order for us (someone else had canceled), and we were able to see why the restaurant can't keep it in stock. The pounded Bahamian shellfish, cut into strips, had been sautéed in a spicy Creole sauce spiked with a hint of searing Scotch-bonnet pepper oil. As in the Haitian dish lambi, the zesty tomato-based sauce clung to the conch, which was partnered by a wonderful mélange of steamed, buttered vegetables including julienne chayote (a squash) and spinach. Here's a helpful hint for the Bankses: Since this dish has proved to be so enticing, ask your purveyors for more.
Well-prepared conch isn't the only stellar signature dish Ginger Bay offers. Simply put, much of the fare rates whatever cliché you wish to employ: topnotch, first-rate, highflying, you name it. And while the owners use the adjective nouvelle for their reinvented Caribbean cuisine (only they call it nouveau), the portions are generous enough to satisfy Paul Bunyan.
An entrée called Seafood Calypso, for example, featured an entire Maine lobster along with a handful of jumbo shrimp. The seafood, unquestionably fresh and delicious, had been both sautéed and gently simmered in a spicy butter/curry/coconut milk sauce. The rich flavors were lightened by the zesty curry, and the succulent shellfish was beautifully cooked, even just a touch underdone. Our only complaint was that the lobster could have used a bit more cracking in the kitchen to prevent us from spray-painting our shirts with permanent butter droplets. Too, the waitress could have brought a cloth with water and lemon or at least a Wet-Nap for our hands afterward. Niceties of service, including the bringing of new silverware and bowls for shellfish discards, would make customers more willing to squander their paychecks on a regular basis.