- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2001

Red Ginger is a saucy place. Saucy as in pert, lively and spirited with a dash of impudence. The interior glows with color, as do many of the serving plates and the food on them.
The restaurant, which opened quietly in late July, might well be subtitled Sharon's Sauces, since some of the most memorable dishes on hand are due to the talent of co-proprietor and chef Sharon Banks. Her way with these liquid preparations alone is worth a visit.
Patrons of Jimmie and Sharon Banks' former eatery, the colorful Hibiscus, tucked under the Whitehurst Freeway on K Street near Key Bridge, recall similar flavors in a theatrical setting full of imaginative art with decorative touches everywhere. Earlier, they invented the low-key Fish, Wings & Tings in Adams Morgan one of the first local hip Caribbean hangouts. A recent Miami adventure folded and brought them home just when Washington needed a fresh culinary kick.
That's kick as in a lift to the senses, which is what you get here for the most part. This is a charming, cozy Caribbean bistro run with flair and many hugs from Mr. Banks, the smiling host. The waiters are conscientious and impressive when they remember to refill water glasses. Our waiter had a winning memory taking no notes for an order of eight different dishes.
The new space is considerably smaller than Hibiscus, being only a single room with barely 10 tables. A bright red, turquoise and yellow interior is set off by mirrors on one wall. Tropical plants and bird of paradise flowers abound. Serving plates are banded in Caribbean sunset shades. Tables include a few booths, made of a striking broad light gray tile, large enough to accommodate whole families. Gone, perhaps only temporarily, are the exotic drinks that were offered at Hibiscus' small bar.
Reportedly, a ginger-flavored house lemonade is available but it wasn't on the menu the night we visited.
The bar in the back of the new location is a magnet that one recent Saturday evening was thronged with multi-ethnic folks who looked ready to party through the night. That isn't surprising, given that most people had been glued to television for days and needed the comfort of a convivial crowd to ward off the gloom of the week's news.
Be warned. The sound of many people talking and enjoying themselves can't compete in close quarters with the recorded reggae and disco music booming away in the background. Forget serious conversation and dig into the menu, which for the optically challenged can be a guessing game in the softly lit surroundings since names of dishes are in orange on a peach background.
Almost any choice will do, however, so few disappointments are to be had by starting with a fried macadamia nut and coconut shrimp over a small salad or curried crab cakes with a pepper and pineapple slaw. (The cakes, not especially impressive, are a nice turn on a local favorite.) "Drunken Frog's Legs" weren't nearly tipsy enough (i.e., spicy) for our taste, but the tender morsels are a novelty seldom found on menus these days. They sat among slivers of fresh mango.
On to the entrees, which lean heavily on sea creatures apart from three meat dishes and one chicken dish. The "Chicken Gone Bananas" features spinach, crabmeat, plantain and fontina cheese stuffing. Lamb chops Red Ginger, grilled to order, has the fault of a lot of lamb on American plates: It lacks distinctive flavor, any hint of the wild.
A beef and langostino turf 'n' surf mix is listed for $23.50, as is a peppercorn- and pimento-crusted tenderloin at $24.50. For $3 more, the indulgent diner can have one of Mrs. Banks' specials: lobster pieces and whole shrimp in a curry and ginger sauce. Called "Lobster Port Antonio," this is a tasty and none-too-filling combo atop a portion of leek mashed potato.
Our favorites by far were the boneless quail in the luscious brown sauce, made of "special seasonings" that are Mrs. Banks' trademark, and the "Red Snapper Hellshire," a whole crispy fish in a mildly spicy tomato vinaigrette with red onion slices. Pureed sweet potatoes provide a textural contrast beside the quail. A small side dish of fairly bland rice and black-eyed peas accompanied the snapper.
There is no resisting the dessert offerings, either. Another of the chef's signature dishes is a heavenly bread pudding (not on the menu) and the temptingly titled "Coconut Boniato Pone with Warm Toffee/Rum Sauce," which is listed but wasn't mentioned by our waitress. The dense ginger-and cinnamon-spiced bread pudding needs its vanilla ice cream addition for full appreciation. A ginger-crusted creme brulee redefines what otherwise can be a simple boring custard. Pineapple and coconut sorbets also are available.
Some grouch points include the price of $5 for bottled water a choice of Saratoga or Evian. The glass of "Pinot Griggio, Baronne" we had for some preliminary sipping had an unclean taste smacking either of poor handling or inept winemaking. A pinot blanc at $7.25 was more satisfying. But must these prices-per-glass keep going up? At least Red Ginger provides a wide selection of both white and red by the glass and the beer includes Jamaican Red Stripe familiar to tourists.
Few people could complain about the variety of bottled wine choices that are a delight to read, if not to drink. Among the reds is Broken Back Shiraz (Australia, $43) and Toad Hallow, Faux Frog Syrah (France, $19).
Perhaps we had overstayed our time in one of the booths but we weren't offered coffee, and we didn't request any. Our palates were plenty saturated enough for one meal.

RESTAURANT: Red Ginger, 1594 Wisconsin Ave. NW
HOURS: 6 to 11 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays and until midnight Fridays and Saturdays; 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays (luncheon service to begin sometime in October)
COST: Appetizers $7.50 to $10.50; soup $6; salads $7 to $9.50; entrees, $16.50 to $27.50; desserts $7; wine by the glass $5 to $7.75 and by the bottle $19 to $43; beer $5.50
PHONE: 202/965-7009
CREDIT CARDS: All accepted
PARKING: Street parking

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