Restaurant Reviews

Caribbean Queen

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.)

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.

Though Banks describes concoctions like the peppercorn-crusted tenderloin in port wine sauce as "tender as woof" (huh?), seafood dominates the menu, and it's fairly easy to overindulge with appetizers like the Red Stripe seafood fritters. These six nuggets consisted of tiny bay shrimp, bits of nubby conch, and lump crabmeat united in a beer-laced batter and deep-fried. Flavored with green onions, the nongreasy fritters were even more wonderful dipped into a piquant ginger tartar sauce. Another starter, calamari grilled with smoked-garlic oil, paired the subtle mollusk with a side of romaine lettuce dressed with a peanut vinaigrette. I found the squid a little too grown-up for my preferences -- I had to wrestle with one or two of the tougher, more aged rings -- but found the simple appetizer delectably flavorful. Perhaps Sharon Banks can request some younger squid from her vendors.

Curry, coconut, and ginger appear in the majority of these dishes, but perhaps the single dominator is Jamaican jerk seasonings. We sampled an outstanding jerk shrimp-and-mango salad, which had been sweetened with julienne mango and dressed with fruity pineapple-infused oil, and a beautifully composed main course of jerk-scented chicken breasts layered with a stuffing of minced crabmeat, spinach, and somewhat starchy (as opposed to meltingly sweet) bananas. The only spicy dish we didn't care for was the jerk-Buffalo chicken wings starter. We ordered these after the other appetizers, yet they arrived mere moments after we requested them, which revealed them as preprepared. Their soggy skin, with lukewarm pockets of fat underneath, hinted that they had been cooked not only earlier but also incompletely.

Coconut and ginger reappear on the dessert list, which is limited to three choices. We savored a properly room-temperature coconut-ginger crème brûlée, presented in twin ramekins like a culinary love seat. The crunchy sugar tops hid fine custard flavored with a mild amount of ginger, though the coconut was undetectable. We felt less amiable toward a runny Godiva chocolate mousse, which not only had no connection to Caribbean culture but failed in pastry-chef terms as well -- clearly, the beaten egg whites hadn't stiffened and peaked before the chocolate was folded in. As a result the nonaerated mousse was more like undeservedly pricey pudding.

As far as flaws go, though, Ginger Bay's are outweighed by virtues: creative cookery, an eager staff, and some much-needed funky décor. I can only hope that, rather than follow the examples of the erstwhile fine-dining arenas, Ginger Bay Cafe sets an example of its own -- not by imposing requirements on its customers but by fulfilling the ones we have for restaurants.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick