RESTAURANT REVIEW (Wellesley, MA): Blue Ginger
I grew up as an upper middle class white kid who ate Mexican many nights for dinner, Chinese food on Sunday nights and my mother’s excellent cooking the rest of the time. I had the opportunity to eat in a number of good restaurants, along the way – either “French” or something called “Continental” – and form a decent idea of what “fine dining” meant. To me, that meaning was this: stuffy. Fine dining had little to do with the food I had during the rest of my life. I knew that food could be exotic, fun and extremely tasty without having to be stuffy. So why did making it “fine” have to make it “stuffy?” The first restaurant to suggest to me that “fun” and “fine” were not more than two letters away from each other was Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois. Here were the flavors I knew from Sunday nights in something of a fine dining setting. This resonated with me even if it seemed somehow incomplete and inchoate.
As the 80s rolled over into the 90s, the “Asian Fusion” movement that Puck is often credited with having started became ubiquitous…and a cliché as well as a cuisine. Two chefs, though, stood out for me: Jean-Georges Vongrichten and Ming Tsai. Through their cookbooks and, in Tsai’s case, his Food Network television show, East Meets West, I came to have a better understanding of what I had been looking for all those years and how it differed from so much of the bad fusion food out there: simplicity, elegance and flavor profiles that combine salty, sweet, spicy, bitter and – crucially – umami. It was this realization that really got me started experimenting with my own cooking.
But up until this past week I had never been to a Vongrichten or Tsai restaurant. No longer. And it was worth the wait. Our first courses ranged from the good – my Foie Gras-Shiitake Shumai in Sauternes-Shallot Broth – to the spectacular – Nancy’s Shiitake-Leek Springrolls with Three Chile Dipping Sauce.
The Foie Gras and Shiitake Shumai was a great example of Ming Tsai’s style. It combined a form from the east (Chinese dim sum) with Western techniques (a Sauturnes-Shallot Broth that brought to mine the sweet, onionoid richness of French Onion Soup). I might have been able to gripe about the dumpling lacking some of the meatiness of the best foie, but the dish was so exciting – and overall so flavorful – that it just never quite occurred to me to do so.
Nancy’s Springrolls hit on nearly every element of taste. Umami from the shiitakes and the dipping sauce, rich savory depth from the fried rolls and the leeks inside, sweetness and saltiness from the sauce, and bright and sweet acidity in the slaw. It was, strangely, one of the less simple dishes on the evening…but it worked spectacularly.
The range on the main courses was a bit broader, if only because of my daughter’s Mixed Green Salad with Crispy Onions & Shallot-Pommery Vinaigrette over which she asked for chicken which came out fried just past the point of perfection, ever-so-slightly into the dry zone. The rest of the dishes, once again, were either good or great.
The best – beyond a shadow of a doubt – was cousin Mary’s Miso-Sake Marinated Alaskan Butterfish with Wasabi Oil, Soy-Lime Syrup and Vegetarian Soba Noodle Sushi. This, one of Ming Tsai’s signature dishes, is a bit of sheer brilliance. The miso-sake marinade is what strikes you first, before you get a hit of the spiciness and bitterness of the wasabi…only for it to be washed away by the richness – almost more of a sensation than a flavor – of the butterfish. It is one of those dishes that compels me to stand up and acknowledge: “I couldn’t have come up with that…”
My Pan Seared Atlantic Salmon with Horseradish Pickled Fennel, Radish Salad, Edamame Puree and Yuzu-Soy Beet Syrup was excellent, as well. The pairing of the salmon with the soybean puree and the syrup was excellent…but the combination of the puree, the pea shoots and the pickled fennel and radish salad raised the dish to another level altogether. The richness of the puree – it was not for the faint of heart or thick of artery – was cut perfectly by the acidity of the pickle and those pea shoots brought the whole dish together. The combination of the Eastern ingredients and the Western techniques and presentation is very much what Blue Ginger is all about.
From Joanne’s Szechuan Chicken dish (which Alex labeled “the best chicken I’ve ever tasted”) to Alex’s perfectly done Pork Chops and Steve’s Indonesian Curry Pasta (Mary: “He never eats curry!”) the other main courses were excellent. The cheesecake dessert was no less.
The wait was worth it for me to get to Blue Ginger. Ming Tsai may not be behind the stove every night – Jonathan Taylor is the restaurant’s Executive Chef – but the dishes are still his and their execution is superb. While some of those dishes may not have all of the elegant simplicity of his earlier efforts, they do reflect Tsai’s exuberance, creativity and unerring eye for combining the flavors and techniques of East and West. Do not wait as long as I did to taste it.
- Blue Ginger
- 583 Washington Street
- Wellesley, MA 02482
- (781) 283-5790
– Michael A. Gardiner