Chopsticks Say: Ka-ching!
Here's a restaurant with volume set to "max," 14,000 square feet of surround-sound at the Fort Lauderdale Grande's new China Grill. From design to dames it's all spilling over the top: Take the flocks of unescorted single girls, their ruby slippers clackety-clacking on tile floors inlaid with quotes from Marco Polo. These ladies are like some kind of Darwinian experiment with their bronze pumps and backless shirts, the bubble mini dresses and ankle bracelets, their toned, tanned gams — no doubt their genetic line is assured. Or the glow-in-the-dark sushi bar, diners bending, Narcissus-like, over its cool, reflective blue. Backlit floor-to-ceiling walls display magnums of sake. Cherry-hued lanterns sway from a three-story ceiling. The hostesses at the entry, from every angle, register as perfect tens. And the grand open kitchen faces a party room where celebrants clink designer cocktails at communal tables laid for a dozen.
Then there's the view, an Intracoastal panorama under the 17th Street Causeway. Yachts glide by, bejeweled floating cities. You can't help but glitter along with them — everything within eye's reach seems to glow from within, or flicker, or shine, or purr with self-satisfaction.
This is a rich man's fantasy, and it comes to us courtesy of a very rich man, restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow. It took Chodorow 20 years from the time he opened his first China Grill in New York City to settle his megawatt gaze on Fort Lauderdale. In the two decades since Chodorow plunged into the restaurant biz (he was a real-estate broker and an airline magnate, among other things), he's set up culinary playlands in Vegas (Rumjungle, Red Square, Mix), Miami (Blue Door, Social, Tuscan Steak), 'Frisco (Asia de Cuba), L.A., Chicago, Mexico City, London, and New York (Ono, Wild Salmon, Maxim Steakhouse, Borough Food and Drink, Hudson Cafeteria, Kobe Club). He's partnered with big-time chefs, notably Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, Michel Richard, Claude Troisgros, and, embarrassingly, Rocco DiSpirito. He's one of a few who've managed to maintain a business relationship with designer and enfant terrible Ian Shrager. Chodorow has embroiled himself in lawsuits (did he have to chose a moniker for his NYC fusion fiasco, the now defunct Ono, that also happened to be the exact last name of a celebrated chef working just down the street?). He has starred in an ill-fated Reality TV show (The Restaurant), where he abetted the total meltdown of chef Rocco DiSpirito. Last year, he took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to protest food critic Frank Bruni's zero-star review of Kobe Club steakhouse (Bruni: "If Akira Kurosawa hired the Marquis de Sade as an interior decorator, he might end up with a gloomy rec room like this") — and to question Bruni's credentials (Chodorow: "Mr. Bruni comes to us from Rome where he was not the local 'expert' on Italian cuisine; he wrote about politics. In fact, there hasn't been a real food critic with food background [at the Times]... since Ruth Reichl.") The ad cost Chodorow something like $25,000 and, for a time, his last shred of dignity.
The lumbering Chodorow, who with his week's worth of beard and sprawling girth is the very image of a honey-seeking bear, has been hated and fêted for 20 years. It's about time he landed here and let us have at him. China Grill opened on March 14, and by its second week you couldn't bribe a maitre d' for a Friday or Saturday night table.
The menu at the Grande roughly replicates New York and Miami; Chodorow is a man so dedicated to his concept that when he opened China Grill Miami 13 years ago, he hired a university chemist to help him keep his signature crispy spinach from wilting in our south Florida humidity (now, if only he'd hire somebody to make it taste good). The fare is world-fusion, and like the décor, it's plugged in: This is hyperamplified food meant to be heard in the most distant bleachers of the amphitheater — think Foo Fighters on a plate. It holds up brilliantly against many rounds of saketinis, arguing its flavor profile no matter what mayhem circulates around it. Distracted as you may be by the broads, the beat, the boats, the bustle — those beef dumplings ($22) or lamb spareribs ($24) are going to hit your palate with a force to shock and awe.
Even with tongue embedded firmly in cheek I happily ingested many dishes over the course of two evenings. Like I said, this food ain't subtle, but it's almost always intense and pleasurable enough to make you say yummy yummy. Part of the "concept" is that you're supposed to share (like in a real Chinese restaurant), which furnishes the Grill a semi-plausible excuse for pricing appetizers between $19.50 and $36 and twice that for entrées (the whopper is a $76 rack of lamb). You'll emerge from the din, stumbling from too many juniper blossom cocktails and excessive quantities of seasoning, having spent about what you would at any other trendy restaurant, which is to say, a lot.
But at least you'll tell your crew, later on, that you really dug those double roasted, air-dried lamb spareribs ($24), a pile of meat so full of fat and juice you'll be licking the plum and sesame glaze off your fingers for hours (still, couldn't they supply a finger bowl? A hot towel? A wetnap?). You'll have plenty to mull over when the lobster pancakes arrive (market price; they were $31.50 the night we dined); a lightly browned crepe is stuffed with good fresh lobster, scallions, red pepper, and mushrooms, and then bathed in a sauce made from coconut milk and lobster stock, emanating traces of caramel. Kobe rolls ($14), from the sushi menu, arrive with an assortment of dipping sauces including one made with rum and another with kimchee. And the beef scallion dumplings ($22) are dumpling superheroes — an exaggeration of the very idea in their rich, salty, sweet, hot soy and ginger bath.
By the time you finish your apps, your mouth will be puckered like a koi fish from all the salt and sour, your blood sugar will be off the charts, and if my high-voltage cucumber saketini ($12) was a fair indicator, the room will have begun to rotate. Relax! You've got plenty of time, nobody's going to hurry you out of here — they want you to order another $8 bottle of water, another double-digit margarita or triple-digit bottle of Amarone. The service, it must be said, is thoroughly competent and very nice — one of our waiters (bless you, David T.) was so well versed in the menu he could rattle off the preparations and ingredients, the history of the restaurant, and the pedigree of the chef, without pausing for so much as an "um." And he was completely in the weeds that Friday night.
I have no complaints about the food, not the really delicious duck two ways ($39), served shredded moo-shu style as a confit with julienned vegetables and hoisin, and as a sliced, tender breast drizzled with chocolate orange sauce, accompanied by delightful crepes — spinach, buckwheat, scallion. Or the similarly prepared pork tenderloin ($38), just as rosy and moist, blanketed in an Asian mole seasoned with five-spice powder and topped with more shredded pig tostadas and gazpacho. We loved our fillet of black cod ($42) with Chinese broccoli and yuzu-butter sauce. In fact, the only dish that tanked was the oily, overpriced mountain of crispy spinach ($12, a side dish): the flash-fried leaves dissolve into instant absence on the tongue and leave greasy stains on the silk trousers. This spinach would make a statement as a garnish; as a $12 vegetable it's inscrutable.
I can complain, though, about annoying flaws that after 20 years of business ought to have been ironed out by China Grill management: the sadistic, slippery bowls everything is served in, upon which no utensil will balance, so you end up having to fish your spoons, forks, knives, and chopsticks, thoroughly drenched in sauce, out of your food every few minutes. And those chopsticks are pretty, but they're too polished to allow you to grip anything. I'll complain about temperature: The place is uncomfortably frigid, even packed full of heat-generating sorority girls.
And while the "bananas in a box" for dessert ($11) allow for plenty of showmanship (your waiter flips the tall caramel tuile box sideways, cracks it open with a spoon, and tosses the revealed caramelized bananas, pastry cream, and caramel sauce together) — the tuile box is less tasty than the cardboard it's meant to simulate. Ditto cheesecake pot stickers ($11), served prettily in a bamboo steamer with five-spice chocolate dipping sauce — they're all show and no substance.
But this is theater, not dinner. God knows our little burg, now that the spring beakers have decamped for other beaches, could use some spit and polish, a few more cocktails made of Poire and pixie dust, an extra gaggle or two of wasp-waisted girls dressed in little gold skirts. I'm willing to pay full price for a ticket to a show like that.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to South Florida dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.