For Ginger Park, change is good
Let’s talk about reinvention.
The reinvention of Banq, which opened in 2008 to much fanfare. Unfortunately for the restaurant, much of it had to do with the groovy interior, tricked out with undulating ribs of blond wood, not the Asian-inflected French food.
The reinvention of Patricia Yeo, a New York chef acclaimed for her restaurant AZ, but less well-received at several subsequent establishments.
Two months ago, after a year and a half in business, Banq changed its name, its concept, and its chef. It’s now called Ginger Park, and it serves small plates that put Asia front and center. The food is conceived by Yeo, who relocated to Boston for the new post.
Is there such a thing as a fresh start? Tiger Woods hopes so. Ginger Park and Yeo testify yes. The place looks much the same as before; a wall was removed behind the U-shaped bar, opening up the space, the design equivalent of a breath of fresh air. Its owners are the same, Hemant Chowdhry and Mark Raab. But it is now a much stronger restaurant. Flavors are bolder. Dishes are downright addictive. Cocktails seem less sweet and more refreshing. (The tamarind margarita and shiso-jito are both quite good.) And the menu is less serious, more fun. It’s now the kind of place you want to return to regularly.
Menu offerings rotate often, small-to-medium-size servings filed under “cold plates,’’ “hot plates,’’ “dumplings & things,’’ “noodles & rice,’’ and “specials.’’ These are meant to be shared, and servers recommend ordering about two items per person. (Specials are closer in size to standard entrees than the other selections are.) Ordering here is like salting a pot; start off conservatively and add more to taste.
The dishes span an entire continent; Yeo spent several years in Asia, and she apprenticed with street vendors in Thailand and Malaysia. Peppery Vietnamese shaking beef is folded into pancakes, moo shu style - drippy but so flavorful. Duck meatballs spiked with lemongrass and cilantro are served with soft, smoky eggplant puree and Thai massaman curry. It’s a beautiful dish. So is dan dan mien - in your mouth, if not in the bowl.A brown heap of thin noodles, these are referred to on the menu as “Sichuan-style ‘Bolognese.’ ’’ They match their Italian meat sauce cousin in savory satisfaction, but they’re quite a bit spicier. (If there were questions about whether Ginger Park is too similar to Myers + Chang, also serving Asian small plates right down the street, this dish answers them. It’s so different from Myers + Chang’s light, cool dan dan noodles laced with ginger and peanut sauce, you wouldn’t think they shared a name.)
Silver pin noodles are similar to udon but made of rice. (They’re sometimes known, less poetically, as “rat noodles’’ because of their resemblance to rodent tails.) The chewy, thick strands are stir-fried with tofu and bean sprouts; the sauce has a deep, almost roasted soy flavor, similar to miso but not as rich. It comes from fermented soy beans and salted, dried daikon, Yeo explains later by phone.
Naan flatbread touches down in India, topped with spiced lamb, tender potatoes, spinach, feta, and tomato sauce spiked with bird chilies. It’s a great combination, though the bread seems more like pizza crust than naan.
Short rib and sweetbread potstickers are tender-skinned, with a rich and meaty filling; the sweetbread flavor gets lost, though. Spring rolls stuffed with caramelized onion and mushrooms flood the tongue with a similar kind of richness, no meat required. A special of tender oxtail braised in black bean sauce echoes and amps up the meatiness of the potsticker filling; it’s served with little round, fried wontons stuffed with potato-like taro.
It’s satisfying, but other specials stand out more. Redfish is battered and fried, served whole with chili and lime dipping sauces. It’s simple and delicious, and picking off flakes with your chopsticks to pop in your mouth is a leisurely pleasure. Fish is also served steamed, in a dish of cod with tofu, shiitake mushrooms, and bits of Chinese sausage, drizzled with a sauce of soy, fish sauce, and plum wine. And tea-smoked duck features tender, smoky slices of meat with poached quince, a lovely complement. On the side are heavy scallion pancakes; they seem extraneous to me, but those who love scallion pancakes will disagree.
Some dishes on the menu encounter navigational issues. Wild boar with a blue corn tostada is a spicy, fantastic touchdown in the Southwest. Littleneck clams and sausage are served in a wonderful broth scented with lemongrass and studded with pozole. Hominy and Asian flavors pair well, it turns out. And chicken liver mousse is neither here nor there but very satisfying, a flavorful spread served with grilled pita and two delightful condiments: pickled cherries and chutney made with golden raisins.
The kitchen isn’t perfect. Some nights it’s on: Flavors are balanced, dishes well executed. Other nights things aren’t quite as tight. The saddest example of this is the dumplings. While they can be very good, too often they’re improperly heated so that the edges of the wrappers are hard and dry or gummy. Rice dishes such as pork belly bi bim bap and fried rice with duck confit and Chinese sausage can be dull; they are mostly rice, without enough flavor or spice to liven things up. But the biggest disappointment with the menu comes not with the dishes you do try, but with the ones you never get to. I craved the red lentil and green chili fritters, spicy duck fat-fried potatoes, and kedgeree, but when I returned hoping to order them, they had disappeared. On the other hand, they’d been replaced with new and appealing items: the joys and sorrows of an ever-rotating menu.
One without dessert, it should be mentioned. But Ginger Park doesn’t send you away without a taste of something sweet. Little cups of the richest hot chocolate are served at the end of the meal.
Servers here are friendly, helpful, and for the most part knowledgeable. Your spunky waitress will be happy to help you name that Pat Benatar song between offering wine recommendations; the list is accessible and interesting, with selections such as gewürztraminer and a smoky Basque txacoli that pair well with spice and Asian flavors. There are six kinds of sake as well.
Ginger Park is trying to draw back customers who may have grown bored with Banq by offering a side of fun with its small plates. On Tuesdays, you’ll find ’80s music, scorpion bowls, and pu pu platters. Thursdays will be Hell Nights, featuring spicy food, and Sundays are for sake bombs.
The lack of a crowd on some nights shows the rebranding is still a work in progress (type in the URL for Ginger Park and it bounces back to the barely functional banqrestaurant.com). Even so, the reinvention is already a success. This is the restaurant Banq wanted to be in the first place.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.