Satay a while

Pan-Asian goes palatial—without neglecting our favorite dishes.

LET'S PLAY Name That Restaurant, a favorite game among dining nerds the world 'round! I'll name a dish, you shout out who serves it. Here goes: Panang beef curry. Lemon grass chicken satay. Szechuan green beans. Singapore-style Dungeness crab. Siam lettuce cups. Wild Ginger fragrant duck. Um . . . oops. Wild Ginger

1401 Third, 623-4450 lunch Mon-Sat 11:30am-3pm; dinner Mon-Thu 5-11pm, Fri-Sat 4:30pm- midnight, Sun 4:30-11pm AE, DC, MC, V; full bar But you knew anyway, and not just from the headline. Fact is, no restaurant in town has as cultish a following as Wild Ginger, that widely beloved pan-Asian place where individual dishes all but have fan clubs with presidents and Web sites. If you're not a member of one of these clubs, you may not know that Wild Ginger has recently relocated from its 11-year-old digs down on Western to an infinitely more central locale next to Benaroya Hall at Third and Union. The sleek new two-level space, four times as large as the original with twice the seating capacity, feels spare and airy; it is glossy with lacquer and textured with wicker. Very cool. Two main dining rooms are separated by a two-level bar, the choicest denizens of which invariably seem to end up draping gorgeous hair over the rail to peer down at the slummers below. (Both the chic and the not-so seem to be in ample evidence at Wild Ginger, the best-lookin'-place-without-a-dress-code in town.) Down at the far end of the room is the satay bar, above which sits a row of elegant private dining rooms. So: The new Wild Ginger—which has been open two months and still doesn't have a sign out front—is a fine place to look at. Forthwith, then, my report to the fan clubs. Just how have those star dishes survived the move? Well, let's see. Starting with the starters, I'd have to say pretty freakin' well, thanks. Siam lettuce cups ($14.95) arrive as a mound of grilled Chilean sea bass chunks with roasted peanuts, Thai basil, tamarind, lime juice, and plenty of chile. Enfold these ingredients in the accompanying lettuce leaves and pick them up like tacos. Exuberant flavors and textures make these little pocket salads a dazzling adventure and one of the must-orders on the menu. Likewise an incongruous little starter called Wild Ginger bruschetta ($16.95), in which ahi is mashed with peppers, fish sauce, and sesame into a pat頡nd served with bread rounds. For the first few bites it's just weird, this creamy-crackly love child of Italian and Japanese cuisines, but soon that raw ahi begins to work its velvety magic and the thing becomes irresistible. Satays are still reliable too; standouts being the peasant's ($2.75 each skewer, two for $4.75) and the prince's ($5.50 each skewer, two for $9.75). In the former, curry- and coconut cream-marinated free-range chicken is skewered and seared, arriving impossibly moist and savory alongside pickled cucumbers, spicy peanut sauce, and a neat little box-shaped cake of rice. Prince's features large prawns, marinated in galangal, garlic, chili, and coconut and served with soy vinegar. After these, young mountain lamb satay ($4.50 each skewer, 2 for $8) marinated in an Indonesian soy sauce with garlic and pepper failed to knock us over, though the Ellensburg lamb was tender. That's no surprise—some things were always better than others at the old Wild Ginger, too. By and large service was serviceable: highly knowledgeable on one visit, too rushed on another, slightly dim on a third. (On three separate occasions I asked different hosts how much bigger than the original this Wild Ginger was; with utter conviction each gave me a different answer.) All servers excelled at offering recommendations, however, being perhaps fan club presidents themselves. Wild Ginger fragrant duck ($14.95) is still a comfort food-lover's dream, with big hanks of succulent duck to stuff between the tenderest of steamed buns and dredge through sweet plum sauce. Crackling skin fragrant with cinnamon and star anise and other whiffs of the Orient add to the considerable pleasure of this perfect dish. WE FITTED happily through the menu, lighting here and there with almost equal pleasure. Stir-fried scallops with carrots, pea pods, and straw mushrooms ($13.95) draped in a zingy oyster sauce made a satisfying lunch. Likewise a plate of green curry chicken ($9.25) swimming in rich coconut milk and prettily arranged within a palette of purple kale. Thai noodles ($10.25) were tasty, but tedious; my waiter should have cautioned me that this huge plate of translucent ho fun noodles wok-fried with shellfish in a soy-chili sauce would function best as a shared side dish. For one, it was relentless. Seafood takes up more than half the menu at Wild Ginger for a reason: It's almost always extraordinary. Hanoi tuna ($27.95) marinated in shallots, garlic, and turmeric arrived seared rare and scattered with almonds, dill, and scallion oil. This was outlandishly fine and well complemented by the nuts. Steamed salmon ($22.95) was another triumph: crowned in cilantro and ever-so-delicately redolent of ginger and rice wine. Seafood is still venerated in Wild Ginger's kitchen. In one preparation, a piece of rich sea bass ($19.95 for 5-ounce, $29.95 for 8-ounce) was seared, crusted with herbs and peanuts, and served with a lime- and chile-kissed fish stock reduction. So thrilling was this treatment we ordered it later, at lunch, with halibut ($14.75) and were just as pleased. If you want to talk pleasure, however, you must talk about the dish that I've long counted Wild Ginger's best, the one that made me a fan club president years ago. Singapore-style Dungeness crab (market price was $34.95 the night I visited) is one of five Dungeness preparations Wild Ginger offers; the one draped in the delectably briny black bean sauce deepened with tomatoes and livened with plenty of ginger, garlic, and chile. How this sauce penetrates the crab shell and flavors the meat so lushly is beyond me; all I know is that it's still a wonder to behold and perhaps the messiest dish in town. Never mind: Wear washables, use the proferred bib, and don't worry about licking your fingers. Soon a hot towel will arrive at your table, but you will regret leaving even traces of this sauce on it. There you have it: Wild Ginger is still Wild Ginger where it counts. Dishes still arrive ࠬa carte; you can order brown rice or jasmine rice (I advise both) either in separate side dishes or family-style around the table. A side of Szechuan green beans ($6.95, $9.95), delectably wizened from their ride through the wok with chiles and pork, might also be a good idea. Pass it all around the table and eat like a big happy family, enjoying the infectious urban energy and lively din of this new space. Oh—if you're planning to arrive between 6:30pm and 8:30pm, make reservations. Waits (surprise, surprise) are bettering an hour, I'm told.

 
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