Ginger stirs up bland dining experience

jgaines@macon.comApril 11, 2013 

Anticipation built for months after Cesare Mammarella announced that the next in his string of clubs and restaurants would be Ginger Stir-Fry & Grill, filling a long-vacant spot at the corner of Second and Poplar streets downtown.

Mammarella deserves kudos for renovating the building, leapfrogging several empty storefronts to continue the slow creep of commercial life extending from Cherry Street. It’s clear the intention is great. Thus, it’s particularly unfortunate that the execution doesn’t live up to the expectation raised by Mammarella’s usually high-quality dining.

The Facebook page for the restaurant promises “a dining experience unlike anything Macon has ever seen.” That may be true, but it comes off as a junior-grade BD’s Mongolian Grill, a chain with no Georgia locations.

The fundamental problem appears to be the setup. Diners have only a short distance from the front door to figure out procedures, and almost everything is left to customers to grasp. That leads to confusion and a feeling of being rushed, with consequences for the resulting taste experience.

The menu lists about half a dozen appetizers, a couple of soups and desserts, plus standards such as pad Thai and Thai coconut red curry chicken. But at lunch we were told only the appetizers and the grill were available. That meant grabbing two bowls -- no trays -- and immediately choosing items from a salad-bar-like setup. One bowl is for vegetables and starches -- noodles, essentially -- and the other’s for “protein” -- meat, eggs or tofu. There’s a selection of sauces to glop on, but it’s hard to take time to make good choices when there’s an eager line built up behind you.

There’s a decent variety of vegetable choices, and even fruit; but they don’t all cook evenly, and one of my lunch companions said the iced-down broccoli was essentially frozen.

The do-it-yourself bowls are sold by weight. Service is minimal: customers get their own drinks, dig plastic cutlery out of a bin, and answer yells from the serving window to get their food. Everything -- our edamame appetizer and several entrees -- came out within seconds of each other, all served in paper trays.

Our individually chosen combinations of veggies, meat and sauce emerged as a pleasant-looking mélange. At lunch, all three of us opted to add rice, which was unexpectedly mixed in with everything else. This tended to throw off our guesses of how much sauce to use, rendering the result “not very flavorful,” we all agreed.

Both my companions settled on a one-word summation: “Eh.”

Returning for another try at dinner with a different friend, many of the same problems emerged. This led my friend to blame herself, since she’d never been to a Mongolian-style grill before.

I avoided rice this time, so my entrée came out well-seasoned; but my companion, who did get rice, found as we had earlier that the addition rendered her choice too bland. This time, however, both meals were well-cooked.

Our dinner was cut a little short by another design problem.

The afternoon sun blazed right into my friend’s eyes, with no place to hide in the front half of the restaurant. The big open windows give a nice street view, but some kind of film or shade would be welcome.

All in all, Ginger offers a novel experience, but not a special one. Perhaps when a few more months have passed, diners will be used to the routine. Without substantial changes, though, it’ll be up to customers themselves to improve their experience.

Ginger Stir-Fry & Grill

Address: 496 Second St., Macon

Phone: (478) 744-0123

Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, closed Sundays

Payment: Cash, cards

Smoking: No

Alcohol: Bottled beer

Kids’ menu: No

Noise level: High

Health rating: 100

Price range: By weight -- $2.76 per pound for vegetables, $6.40 per pound for meat

Stars: 2.5

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