For a couple of years before making South Florida home, I made frequent trips to Miami Beach. Somehow, a trip south was never complete until I'd had dinner at China Grill.
At the time, everything about China Grill was new, from the nightclub atmosphere to the gingery Shanghai lobster and the crispy spinach. It was also very expensive, but I was on vacation, and no one in Michigan was serving this kind of food. Never mind the eye-candy crowd.
Flash-forward 15 years. The South Beach restaurant closed in April, with plans to reopen next year on Brickell Avenue. Competition has gotten tough in South Beach, but there are still China Grill locations in New York, Las Vegas and Mexico City.
Fort Lauderdale's China Grill opened four years ago, in what was once a coffee shop. It seats more than 500 diners and on a recent Monday night, was virtually empty. I have to think there's an entirely different vibe here when the place is hopping. It's a chic and celebratory setting with food meant for sharing and a big bar that invites imbibing.
With its open-beam, vaulted ceiling and buttery-orange lighting, the entire place glows like a theater-stage set waiting for the players to arrive. You can't help but notice the limestone floors, made up of Marco Polo's diary inscribed in mosaics. We were seated near a wall of windows that overlooks the yachts docked along the Intracoastal.
The menu is divided into appetizers, salads and entrees (plus accompaniments), and most come in two sizes, since everything is meant for sharing. Servers help determine whether you'll need a small or large portion. We opted for the tasting menu, which gave us give different dishes for $69 per person. Every tasting menu item is also available a la carte.
Service is outstanding. A well-trained young server was quite open about his lack of wine knowledge, but he knew the menu.
All these years after my first China Grill experiences, it's still a good restaurant. But the kitchen could use a pep talk, a reminder that no matter how many times you send out a dish, it may be the first time your customers have the pleasure of ordering it. In other words, they need to tighten up and think about every element on the plate. The amuse bouche, for instance, is a delicious avocado creation, but the wonton crisps are greasy.
Spicy beef and scallion dumplings ($14.50/$22.50) are nothing special, but lobster pancakes ($19.50/$35) are superb crepelike rolls filled with lobster and served with a coconut milk with a hint of red chili. Tri-star salad combines three of China Grill's signature salads. Confucius chicken salad ($14.25/$22) with sesame oil vinaigrette is a bit bland, while crackling calamari salad ($15/$23) with lime-miso dressing delivers a nice bite. Crispy wontons in the Caesar salad ($12.25/$20.25) are a nice surprise among the ginger aioli and spiced roasted cashews.
All three tasting menu entrees are excellent. Grilled Szechwan beef ($47) isn't overpowered by soy or spice and is served with shoestring potatoes. Grilled garlic shrimp ($25/$42.50) is tossed with black fettuccine and red-curry-coconut sauce that delivers a bit of heat amid the creaminess of the sauce. Duck two ways ($24/$44) has seared breast with chocolate orange sauce and a better moo-shoo-style preparation: duck confit with spicy hoisin sauce.
The crispy spinach I remember from so many years ago tastes a little greasy, and five vegetable fried could be just a bit fresher.
Desserts don't disappoint, from bananas in a box ($11), a cookie container made from spun sugar and filled with caramelized bananas and caramel cream, to hazelnut chocolate torte ($14) with blackberry and orange anglaise sauce.
I'm told that when the new China Grill debuts on Brickell Avenue in Miami next year, new menu items will be introduced at every location. That could be just what China Grill needs. Because while I believe this is a style of food that's not easy to find in Fort Lauderdale, it could be just like I remember all those years ago, with just a little more attention to detail.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4632. Read his blog at SunSentinel.com/sup and follow him on Twitter at @FloridaEats.
1881 SE 17th St., Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina, Fort Lauderdale
Cost: Expensive-very expensive
Hours: Dinner nightly
Credit cards: AC
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, boosters
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: $5 valet