Open since March, Pickled Ginger is a Pan-Asian South Beach hideaway with sleek, moderne good looks. Opposite the charming red-brick Delancey Street buildings, and looking out on the waterfront, its glossy bar is furnished with inviting ebony and rattan lounges with views of the Bay Bridge. Farther inside, the dining room's odd-shaped window-alcoves (partially enclosing asymmetrical polished wooden tables) keep other groups' conversations from interfering with yours. There's also an outdoor patio, which seems mainly to be given over to pre-booked luncheons.
On a Thursday evening, the music was soft and mellow and the population surprisingly sparse, given SOMA's propensity to start the weekend early.
A menu of modest length changes seasonally. The "fusion" involves a span of cuisine running from Japan to Malaysia: The dishes are creative improvisations (rather than authentic renditions) and often include touches of tropical fruit and a waft of chile peppers. Laid-back prices also contribute to the semitropical aura.
We began with "crispy wrapped smoked chicken cigars" ($5), a variant of spring rolls, prettily presented with the rolls cut at an angle to expose their fillings to view. The stuffing was very savory, but the wraps themselves tasted faintly of stale frying oil, unfortunately not completely masked by a delicious orange-colored dipping sauce based on pureed umeboshi plums gentled from their inherent sour intensity with sweeter citric flavors. Seared pork and scallop gyoza ($5) were Japanese-style pot stickers with a scintillating wonton-style filling inside rather doughy wrappers. The chile and cilantro dipping sauce that accompanied them resembled an especially bright-flavored Mexican salsa verde.
Salt and pepper "soft-shell" prawns ($7) were wok-fried whole, including the heads, their shells made edible by the salt marinade. The dish was a little less fabulous than the version served at most good Cantonese restaurants, but better than the one you'd find at most fusion places. The prawns arrived with a "salad" of scallions and hot pepper rings, seeds included. One of our tablemates, a European unaccustomed to Californians' cavalier chile-handling, innocently tried a forkful and nearly turned into one of those tabloid headlines: "Man Bursts Into Flames!"
The fires were smothered, however, by a soi-disant Caesar salad ($5.50) that promised a kafir lime and anchovy dressing. The salad, however, lacked the requisite croutons, cheese, and any anchovy flavor. It was, instead, simply romaine lettuce scattered lightly with shreds of ginger-pickled beets and a light, rather sweet dressing -- a dish quite pleasing by any other name.
The entree we all enjoyed most was a hearty red-braised lamb shank ($14), a large but manageable joint rubbed with black pepper and Chinese "five spice" seasoning, with its aroma of star anise. The thick, rich brown sauce was complemented by a heap of sharp young Asian greens, lightly cooked to retain their crunch.
Coriander-crusted strip loin of beef ($13) evidently started out as a roll of mild-flavored, very tender beef, rubbed with coarse-ground black peppercorns and coriander seeds, then seared whole (to maintain its moisture) and finally sliced into medallions. It's cooked to your order; mine was for very rare, and the meat arrived looking like seared ahi tuna, sitting atop a thin bed of intensely green pan-fried string beans mingling with crisply fried noodles. The accompanying "wild mushroom" ragout was good even if the fungi were far from feral, consisting of small sliced creminis (brown button mushrooms).
A "Thai jerked" half-chicken ($11) was so beautifully cooked that even the breast remained moist. It was served on a pool of creamy, lightly curried coconut gravy, with a side of sprightly green papaya and carrot slaw (also available as a salad for $10). The seasoning blend -- more Kingston than Krung Thep -- could have used an extra day's marination to sink into the meat, however.
But only a conceptual revamp would have saved the Singapore chili noodles ($15.50). Despite tender seafood (prawns, dayboat scallops, and some unbilled calamari rings), the dish was a gooey red mess of thin rice noodles drowned in tomatoes -- closer to vermicelli swamped in spicy marinara than to the sophisticated seasonings of the Malay cuisines.
A side dish of jasmine rice ($1.50) was remarkably refined and aromatic, its grains distinct, bespeaking excellent rice treated with care. Something called "ube mashed potatoes" ($3) was also offered. "Mashed potatoes with Asian food?" we wondered -- but the first bite was proof of appropriateness, and with the second bite the pleasure kicked in. While we couldn't detect a whit of ube (the purple yam of the South Pacific), the creamy mash was flecked with shiitake mushrooms minced to the size of coarse-ground pepper.
Desserts ($5 each) change nightly, and unfortunately, ours was not a great dessert night. A banana creme brulee had the right silky texture and lightly crisped top, and we enjoyed the ripe, sweet sliced bananas riding alongside as garnish -- but the pudding itself tasted like Jell-O banana cream pie filling. Whether this makes it lovable or awful depends on one's sentiments toward banana pudding mix. A slice of mango cheesecake was in the standard heavy mode of the genre, a wedge so thick, high, and hefty it was hard to manage.
Although Pickled Ginger's food is conceptually inconsistent, the kitchen's execution of the dishes demonstrates perceptible skill and crack timing. That is, the ingredients are handled with great care, even when the dish itself doesn't quite deserve it. Then, too, the moderate prices allow for experimentation, and for repeat visits to find the best choices on the mutable menu. With its casual tone and sleekly comfortable, slightly whimsical decor, a meal there can truly feel like a trip to the beach.