Red Ginger calls itself a Japanese Steak House, and I can’t fathom why. The single best thing about the place was beautifully presented (if a little skimpy) sushi, and the single worst was overcooked, underseasoned bits of beef from the hibachi. Second worst: Shrimp from the hibachi. Third worst: Vegetables from the hibachi.
Yes, there are the fire-and-knife acrobatics at its hibachi tables, with chefs arcing drinks into diners’ mouths from squirt bottles. So perhaps the place has found a niche with the uptown business-travel crowd – which was clearly the bulk of customers on my last weeknight visit, a reasonably busy Monday.
But hibachi food this dismal requires effort. Soba noodles, also overcooked, accompany the usual cut-up vegetables and rice (double starch!), with a creamy sauce that tries and fails to elevate anything. Shrimp appetizer? Two tiny, incinerated shellfish.
Sushi, meanwhile, arrived garnished to the nines: flowers, artistic lemon-rind sculpture, interesting servingware. It’s lovely – and reasonably good if you stick with mainstream fish: salmon, yellowtail, tuna. Out of the ordinary fares less well, from ikura (salmon roe, slightly wan and deflated) to an appetizer of hamachi kama or yellowtail collar (dry, dry, dry, when it should be amazingly succulent and flavorful). The collar is just what you’d think: the piece of the fish right behind the head, served in an interesting architectural twist.
A smallish piece of lush black cod sat atop a slaw studded with strands of kani: A solid dish. Sesame tuna steak produced an adequately thick piece, sliced and adequately cooked, with a wonderfully nutty sesame-tinged risotto made with forbidden rice. Maki were a little tame, and on the smallish side, but there’s a lengthy list of chef’s special rolls ranging from $10 to $16.
The place, whose street address is on Tryon, but is actually on the College side of that 400 block, looks good: simple patio, handsome horizontally stone-tiled sushi bar back, a bit of sculpture, some beautiful tea services on display and a palette of earth tones. A huge TV at the bar can cause sound to spill over, but only onto an overly loud soundtrack (’80s dance hits on one visit). Sex on the Beach was the bar cocktail special on both our visits.
Servers are neat in all black, but ours fell into two categories: disinterested, and eager but flummoxed by even simple orders. Our hostess, on the other hand, beamed with a warm welcome but, in casual shorts and a summery top at night, seemed misplaced. Asking questions works if you can catch the right person, which, because courses come out slowly and are served by whoever is at hand, is possible – but not confidence-inspiring.
Red Ginger seems to be still trying to find its footing, and trying to be many things to many audiences. For those seeking the best food it has to offer, I’d suggest a sushi or sashimi entree, and appreciating its looks.