Wild Ginger | 0 stars | Pan-Asian | $$-$$$ | Downtown | 1401 Third Ave., Seattle; 206-623-4450; wildginger.net; Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sunday 4-9 p.m.; reservations accepted
A FEW THINGS WENT RIGHT at two recent dinners at Wild Ginger. The downtown Seattle standby turned 30 this year, still serving an upscale “culinary tour of China and Southeast Asia.” After a change of location, the flagship sits across from Benaroya Hall, above semi-subterranean music venue The Triple Door. How has time treated Wild Ginger? It still feels — at least at first — like a real evening out. The host stand buzzes, the ceiling soars and the space seems endless, with sinuous bar seating, two capacious rooms and mezzanines above.
The crowds still come, some preshow, some from out of town and some longtime fans, guessing from overheard conversations and the apparent age of the majority of diners. But unless a party is exceptionally loud, you only overhear if you’re trying. Wild Ginger manages the trick of feeling busy and urbane — important, even — with acoustics that make your table its own island of tranquillity, one where you can actually hear each other talk.
We loved the green beans. The servers here may nudge you to add them to your order, and that upsell became the highlight of one supper. Listed quietly under “Sides” and called Sichuan, they get raves from Wild Ginger fans, and ours bridged crunchy and pliant, bathed in a sweet-and-soy-and-sesame-oil sauce, with bits of pickled vegetable worth trapping with your chopsticks or fork (both come standard here). Rumor has it the Wild Ginger green beans used to contain bits of pork — a very fine, if sneaky, green-bean cheat. Now they’re vegan, but another secret to their deliciousness remains: They’re first deep-fried, then also wok-fried.
“Peasants chicken” is not a wise choice of name at an Asian restaurant owned by white people, but there it is on Wild Ginger’s menu: two skewers for $9, and we were glad we got them at another dinner. Both this and the lamb satay were ideally cooked — the chicken-thigh meat juicy and tender, the thick chunks of lamb retaining a tinge of pink at the center, the right amount of smoke and char as evidence. The pleasantly thick peanut sauce accompanying both was mercifully unsweet.
But sweet’s an easy thing to lean on, and it became a theme elsewhere. A ginger martini came teeth-achingly sugary with a surfeit of Lillet Blanc and Domaine de Canton liqueur. The sticky-wet filling for lettuce cups, with barely identifiable morsels of seared sea bass, was soaked in sweetness. Seven-flavor beef, a Wild Ginger “classic,” had but one flavor: cloying. The beef was so chewy and oversauced that my colleague Tan Vinh deemed it “a travesty,” comparing it to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet.
The thick, gummy wrappers of Wild Ginger’s chicken pot stickers might’ve been helped a little by a less timid, pale sear; the filling could’ve tasted more of, well, ginger. The “Hong Kong specialty” black pepper scallops — eight small ones for $33 — came carelessly jumbled on an overlarge oval plate, with one orchid blossom as decoration. The scallops had been browned instead of seared for an unsettlingly uniform texture, sprinkled unevenly with whole peppercorns for an unwanted element of surprise and “coated with soy sauce” that tasted, again, sweet. “Seafood Thai noodles,” some strands gummily overdone, seemed distinguished from standard-issue chow fun only by a sprig of Thai basil on top. Dense rather than succulent “house specialty” five-spice duck came with steamed buns that seemed chilled and stiff, rather than like soft clouds; our “sweet plum sauce” was missing, which may have been for the best.
Wild Ginger’s wine program has won awards for many years, and still does. At the outset of one visit, a sommelier stopped by, holding out a bottle swaddled in a napkin in a presentational fashion. My female friend and I looked askance at him, as we’d not ordered a bottle of wine (or anything yet, though we would’ve liked to). “This is for another table,” he said unapologetically, still proffering it. He announced that he was a sommelier, then mansplained what a sommelier is, sort of: If we wanted a glass of wine with our dinner, his job was to help us with that. Then he vanished, never to be seen again.
Our perfunctory, though not unkind, server kept us on her schedule — we got drinks in edgewise, though we were quite desperately ready to order everything, then waited some more. The sticky-sweet lettuce cups came accompanied, almost immediately, with hot towels that sat and cooled; afterward, they stayed crumpled on the table as all the rest of our food arrived in a barrage. Fresh plates were offered and set down with a clatter, complete with visibly dirty spots around their edges. The pace, first lagging, then wham-bam, meant we finished our cocktails almost at dinner’s end, though we would’ve liked wine, too (given the circumstances, probably a bottle).
The second time around, Tan and I ordered a glass each of the red and the white “30th anniversary specials” wines, oddly listed as just “Aged off-dry Riesling” and “Vintage Chateauneuf du Pape” — at $17.50 and $25 a pop, respectively, no vintage or vintner given. A clearly harried server hurriedly said the riesling (grapefruit nose, very sweet) was a 2017, the Chateauneuf (inoffensively dusty, with a disappearing finish) a 2011. Our request for information about the actual wineries, while heard, ultimately went unrequited. (Seems like a job for a sommelier.)
Time marched on. They lost our order entirely and took it again. Pot stickers finally showed up, then everything else all at once, with satay landing last. We declined what seemed like a strangely hard sell on dessert, considering all that had happened, then received a bowl of coconut gelato anyway, which at least wasn’t on the bill when we finally got it. While we were waiting for that, another order of pot stickers had to be fended off. A tremendous crash from the direction of the kitchen punctuated, fittingly, this dinner.
LEFT TO SIT for long spells at Wild Ginger, you begin to notice the lights are rather bright, muting any added atmosphere or intimacy from candles on the tables. Up on the balcony in the main dining room, a line of empty, haphazardly spaced wicker chairs makes for strange décor. Beyond that, while the building has great bones and dramatic Deco-style pillars, there’s not much: plainish furnishings, a carved cabinet, a vase that looks to be full of sticks.
Given the sorts of colonial choices that can be made, the spare-to-nonexistent look may be for the best. Wild Ginger’s website could take a page from that book, namely for the “Story” there, detailing how owners Rick and Ann Yoder traveled through Southeast Asia in 1984, thought “wouldn’t it be amazing if we could get this food in Seattle?” and decided they were the ones to do it, citing their own perseverance and determination. Where did the recipes come from? What about Wild Ginger’s opening chef, Jim Han Lock — according to a 1989 Seattle Times story, from south of Guangzhou, with 30 years’ experience in Hong Kong and Seattle restaurants? The names of current Wild Ginger chefs — Kevin Chiang, Gihan Ernest, Dushan De Silva — are hard to find. “Wild Ginger’s roots are firmly planted in the cultures that inspire us,” the Story goes, but absent anything further on that, it feels less like inspiration and more like appropriation. In a time when profiting off of cultures other than one’s own is rightfully under intense scrutiny — in food, music, fashion, film and more — thorough acknowledgement must, at least, be given. Honor must be paid.
And with Wild Ginger’s profoundly uninspired food — an overpriced, pale imitation of the cuisines from which it takes — the restaurant is an institution that feels institutional, and very much of a different era.
Wild Ginger: 1401 Third Ave., Seattle; 206-623-4450; wildginger.net; Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday 4-9 p.m.
Prices: $$-$$$ (appetizers $9-$24; mains $17-$34)
Noise level: comfortably moderate
Service seems harried, perfunctory, not always well-trained
Drinks: full bar, wine, sake, beer
Access: no obstacles, men’s and women’s restrooms
Editor’s note: This story has been edited to add context to the mention of cultural appropriation.