The comparison clamor is about to get a lot louder, however, with the opening of China Grill Cafe and Zen Sum in Las Olas Riverfront in Fort Lauderdale. The three-week-old, Asian-influenced restaurant is a sister to China Grill, a celebrity-frequented place on South Beach. China Grill Management also owns and/or manages several other oh-so-happenin' spots in South Beach, including Blue Door (in the Delano hotel), Red Square, Tuscan Steak (which is next door to Red Square and across from China Grill), and the latest, Noodles of Asia (on Lincoln Road).
But if China Grill Cafe and Zen Sum is to be equated with its South Beach counterparts, then we might as well consider Manhattan as well. The original China Grill opened in New York City in 1987, helping to pioneer the fusion movement. And the decor of the new outpost in Las Olas Riverfront is as urban as any restaurant in NYC. Spotlights bounce off the gleaming metal surfaces like Superballs, and seats are backed with translucent, neon green and orange material. The satay bar is actually a conveyor belt, delivering food to patrons perched around it. The restaurant even has two robotic carts that serve satay and noodle dishes to parties seated at tables. The Jetsons would feel right at home.
Some, however, might feel a bit challenged by the noisy atmosphere, which extends to the bathrooms, where the stalls are equipped with video screens showing lessons on Zen life. Although we were amused by the technology age's answer to bathroom reading, it, in the end, is what China Grill Cafe is all about: combining a highly idealized vision of cuisine and decor with a simplistic, Zenlike approach. While the China Grills in Miami and Manhattan aspire to a certain sophistication, which ultimately matches the bill, the 250-seat China Grill Cafe and Zen Sum is a more downscale version, as evidenced by the prices. Pan-Asian dishes start at $2.50 and top out at $16.95. (Main courses in Miami can cost as much as $52.)
Don't plan on saving money, however. At the China Grill Cafe, the goal, according to what's written on the menu, is "high-end, family-style dining." In other words, pick a bunch of dishes and pass them around. It's a good idea, I think; sharing food facilitates social interaction and establishes a sense of community at the table, especially among folks who may be dining together for the first time. Add one or two specialty drinks, made with tropical flavors and top-shelf liquors, and you can further lubricate the conversation.
The only problem with the family-style dining at China Grill Cafe is that portions can be small, so if a party has more than three people in it, the diners last on the rotation get left with the dregs of a dish. The beef-and-tomato dumplings, for instance, were a lusty, pan-fried trio, topped with tangy black-bean vinaigrette. There just weren't enough of them. Ditto the barbecued Japanese eggplant -- or so we at first thought. The three skewered eggplant halves had been grilled and sprinkled with crushed peanuts, and their aroma was inviting. But they were unpleasantly bitter, and we made do with the minced cabbage salad that garnished the plate instead.
For those patrons not fluent in Asian culinary terminology, the menu may be a challenge to decipher. Fortunately it's arranged by categories, including rolls, dumplings, satays, salads, and noodles. So even if a customer can't quite figure out what "turkey siu mai with cranberry ponzu" is, the fact that it's listed under "dumplings" might help. Barbecued lamb ribs were just as they sound -- meaty ribs slow-cooked with a sticky-sweet sauce, slipping off the bone like a ripe persimmon from a tree. Terrific. Still, the names of some of the dishes were slight misnomers, especially those in the "appetizers" category. We chose spinach pakoras from the list and added shrimp (an option) for an extra $2. Usually these Indian fritters are dense with vegetables. But in this case, individual leaves of spinach had been so battered and deep-fried, the papery vegetable was lost in the coating. And on the side, three shrimp had been cooked in a similar manner, which left them soggy. A perky tamarind dipping-sauce improved the flavor but not the texture.
Peking duck potpie, chosen from the "woks, grills, and roasts" section, was not quite a potpie, either -- at least not in the traditional sense. But it was delicious. Chunks of boneless Peking duck and a variety of Asian vegetables, including cabbage and snow peas, had been stewed in a rich hoisin sauce and ladled into a clay pot. Folded Mandarin pancakes, supple and steaming, lay on top of the dish, and a garnish of two fried rice-potato cakes, splashed with sesame seeds, added both crunch and starch.
The "craBLT roll" sounded as good as it tasted, resonating with a nice, Rice Krispies kind of snap 'n' crackle. Sushi rice was wrapped around crisp bacon, succulent crab, and refreshing iceberg lettuce. The concoction was complemented by a buttermilk dipping sauce, more Southwestern than Asian -- but hey, where there's fusion, there's leeway. Taking advantage of world influences, China Grill Cafe also offers a variety of pizzas, which are grilled. The pitalike crust on our pizza of the day had been glazed with a super-piquant sauce, then sprinkled with shredded pork, fresh bean sprouts, and scallions. Shared as an appetizer (it's big enough for a main dish), it served as a zesty interlude.
Order enough dishes and you will fill up. But the menu, which is inscribed with Eastern tenets throughout, warns patrons to "consider the whole. Then you will understand what is missing." In our case that meant dessert, and fruit sushi was a precious end to the meal. Coconut was dipped in chocolate to resemble a sushi roll, then crowned with chunks of various tropical fruits such as kiwi, mango, and banana. Guava sorbet, a garnish, was superbly soothing to the palate.
Any day now another South Beach sister restaurant, Big Pink, is set to open in Las Olas Riverfront. Combine that with China Grill Cafe, and Las Olas Riverfront is currently the forerunner in the South Beach-alike contest. All they need to do now is bring in a nightclub that doesn't open until midnight, station a couple of gang members on the nearby street corners, and hire some transvestites to work the doors, and none of us will need to venture to SoBe ever again.
China Grill Cafe and Zen Sum. 300 SW First Ave, Fort Lauderdale, 954-462-9006. Lunch daily from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Dinner nightly from 5 p.m. till midnight, Friday and Saturday till 1 a.m.
Peking duck potpie