If Hong Kong-style Cantonese food paired with craft cocktails and good wine sounds dreamy, it is, with a caveat. Entrées range from $12 to $29, and some diners will balk at that. Here’s why: Houston is home to a spectacular international district (colloquially referred to as “Chinatown” even though that’s never been an accurate description for that amazing melting pot of cuisines). The restaurants are lowbrow (it’s not a stretch to call some of them kind of ugly), and the platters, plates and bowls of food served are as economical as they are hearty and pleasing. Diners who live in the area or are used to making regular pilgrimages a few times a month are likely to deem Ginger & Fork too precious and costly.
This is one of those times, though, that the question should not be “Why?” The question should be “Why not?” Why not serve Cantonese fare in a beautiful house with a touch of Southern hospitality? Does Houston not have room for both? Of course it does.
There’s unassuming elegance within the whitewashed walls of Ginger & Fork, in the house where La Fisheria used to reside. It’s an open, airy space, and the focal point of the entrance is a long, marble-topped bar. Once guests are seated and have ordered, it’s common for owner Mary Li and general manager Donnie Roy to roam from table to table, speaking with everyone and just generally being consummate hosts. It’s a skill they honed for years at Tony Mandola’s, where Li worked as a bartender and Roy as a manager. Roy quickly disavows any credit for the well-oiled operation. “It’s definitely Mary running the show,” he chuckles. Either way, Ginger & Fork is the kind of place where if people dine there once, they will be remembered the ?next time.
There was a bit of trepidation about Sunday dim sum being served as a polite, eight-course meal instead of on carts. While it lacks the catch-as-catch-can charm of grabbing what’s available, Ginger & Fork’s brunch has its own quiet appeal.
Ginger is, unsurprisingly, a key element in many dishes and even the cocktails. At brunch, ginger-infused mimosas are $5, as are interesting Bloody Marys that have a bit of ginger syrup added for an unexpected sweet and spicy note that’s both odd and intriguing. Dim sum brunch starts with ching po leung, a Cantonese soup made with pork bone stock and nine herbs. (The ancient soup is amusingly referred to as “bone broth,” which is all the rage right now.) It’s considered a healthful tonic, but Li couldn’t tell us what the herbs were. “I know them in Chinese, but I don’t know what they are in English,” she said.
Most recipes for ching po leung found on the Internet call for little-known ingredients like jade bamboo, dried foa nuts, lily pulp and lotus seed. Despite all those likely additions, the soup was rather bland. Surely adding a little salt wouldn’t destroy all the supposed benefits. That said, all tasters agreed that the next time they had a cold, they’d love for a quart of it to be delivered. Mind the occasional bone fragment, though.
If the soup represents “yang,” a warming element when considered in terms of Chinese cuisine, the woodear mushroom salad is balancing, cooling yin. The chilled mushrooms are a rubbery, polarizing texture — people will either love it or hate it — but crunchy, thick, tangy slices of marinated celery and carrot are excellent counterpoints. Similarly, the chili cabbage (found under “Chilled Medleys” in the list of appetizers) is a Cantonese quick-pickle called suan cai. It’s like a fresh, unfermented type of kimchi, and Ginger & Fork’s version is blissfully delicate, cooling and tongue-tingling at the same time.
The remaining seven brunch courses include fine examples of classic dim sum fare, such as respectable shrimp and pork dumplings, a fluffy white barbecue pork bun and exemplary sticky rice, dotted with pork and served neatly enveloped in a lotus leaf. The namesake ingredient makes another appearance in dessert, Mary’s ginger parfait. It’s beautifully simplistic, with layers of creamy cheesecake divided by gingersnap crumbs pulverized to a fine sand.
The entrées were not always as appealing. Cantonese fare is not a highly spiced cuisine — so as to let natural ingredients shine — but there’s still room for improvement. Thinly cut slices of meat in the clay pot beef (served in a metal pot, probably thanks to health concerns about clay vessels) were fork-tender and accented with a generous handful of wispy enoki mushrooms. However, these were supposedly served in satay sauce — a type of peanut sauce — but it was so meekly seasoned that it just seemed like generic brown gravy. Similarly, a big serving of pale, dull, steamed cauliflower wasn’t helped at all by the mild sauce that spoke of nothing more than chicken stock and cornstarch.
The fried rice, tinged shadowy gray with a light, briny dose of squid ink, fared much better, especially anytime a hunk of sweet Chinese sausage tagged along on a forkful. When it didn’t, though, there were still plump shrimp, chunks of squid and bits of fried egg to fill the gap.
Valet haters will be disappointed at the enforced valet parking in the evenings, but it is complimentary (except for the expected gratuity, of course). The parking lot just isn’t big enough for it to be a free-for-all.
Ginger & Fork’s lens on Cantonese cuisine is one that acknowledges Houstonians’ love for the classics while applying a dose of sophistication. Like any restaurant that carves out a unique identity for itself and has something important to say, it’s not for everyone. It is, however, for those who appreciate feeling as if they are dining in someone’s home and value the earnest elegance of the experience.
Ginger & Fork
4705 Inker, 713-861-8883. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sundays.
Chilled cabbage $5
Peking duck bao $9
Garlic cauliflower $15
Squid ink fried rice $18
Clay pot beef $24
Sunday dim sum brunch $35
Mary’s ginger parfait $7.50
Ginger Bloody Mary (brunch) $5
Ginger mimosa (brunch) $5