A wave of new restaurants are opening in Fort Point this year, and from the looks of the crowds at Ming Tsai's three-month-old Blue Dragon on A Street, the neighborhood is ravenous for more.
Tsai, of “Simply Ming” fame on WGBH-TV, calls his new venture an Asian gastropub, a tapas-style take on the higher-end fare he serves at Blue Ginger in Wellesley. It’s a clever concept, with small plates circling the continent, from Indonesian shepherd’s pie to pad Thai to Vietnamese banh mi. And the setting is hip and casual: a long, triangular building with triangular tables, reclaimed barn wood, and wrought-iron light fixtures; rock music fills the air and the TVs are tuned to sports. An antique mirror transformed into a water sculpture makes it appear as if rain is pouring down outside one window, a feng shui element that gives the corner a cozy feel.
The wait to get a table is not so relaxing. Blue Dragon doesn’t take reservations, and showing up on a Saturday night at 7:30 with six people could mean a three-hour wait. The usual happy-hour crowd is here on a busy Thursday evening — guys in sport coats, women in heels reading work e-mails on their phones — along with a gray-haired gentleman with a handlebar mustache and a guy with a mohawk, gold chains, and ear buds. Tsai is often in the house, working in the kitchen or bringing out plates.
The chef-owner plays it safe with some of the food, Westernizing Eastern dishes into a nondescript middle ground. The Korean chicken wings don’t seem to have an ethnicity of any sort, although the fresh, crunchy kimchee on the side is a helpful hint. A heaping platter of buttermilk tempura fried chicken looks promising but tastes like regular fried chicken, heavy on the batter.
Adventurous offerings are much more appealing — and, with smaller plates all $13 or less, fairly accessible for the unsure. Miso-marinated hamachi kama arrives attached to its hulking collarbone, nicely browned on top and caramelized on the bottom, surrendering tender, meaty hunks of fish to dunk in a tangy ponzu sauce. Crispy pork tail is rather phallic-looking, but don’t let that intimidate you: The pork is sticky, sweet, and slow-cooked, served with mango sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf.
Other favorites: fresh, gingery garlic-chili octopus with crispy potato croquettes; shishito peppers dusted with nutty sesame powder, brightened by a squeeze of lemon; and Chinese broccoli, slightly crunchy with a pleasant crushed-chili heat. Al dente dan dan noodles brim with ground pork, Szechuan chili oil, cinnamon, and star anise, melding into perfect Asian comfort food. Garlic and just the right amount of heat infuse every heavenly bite of the udon noodles, which are paired with plump garlic-sake clams.
Less appealing are rubbery soy-pickled deviled eggs and pork and scallion wontons, whose gelatinous wrappers slide off when we attempt to pick one up. And the eight treasure fried rice is so bland it seems like a mistake. Could it be takeout from a cheap Chinese restaurant around the corner? Tiny cubes of edamame, carrot, zucchini, and red pepper are pretty but don’t add much; unfortunately, the burnt bits of smoked ham do. Then my dining companion has the brilliant idea of pouring the garlic-chili sauce from the octopus on top, and it springs to life.
Shrimp banh mi on the lunch menu, on the other hand, bursts with flavor and texture: peppery shrimp, crunchy celery and cucumbers, pickled daikon, spicy chilies, fragrant basil, mint, and cilantro, and creamy black pepper aioli, all piled inside a crusty loaf. Thai beef salad, infused with grapefruit slices, strands of green papaya, lightly seared beef, and crispy mung bean noodles, is fresh and filling.
But, much like the un-Korean chicken wings, there’s nothing Asian about the Asian sloppy Joe — the crispy onions are nice, but the sambal aioli is undetectable. It’s just your average Joe, and a very sloppy one at that — although the spicy fries are a treat.
For dessert, the lone item is a warm chocolate chip cookie in a skillet with ice cream and soy caramel sauce. It’s sweet and gooey (you can’t taste the soy), a perfectly fine end to a meal at Applebee’s. But at an Asian gastropub it sticks out like a, well, like a chocolate chip cookie at an Asian gastropub.
The service, like the food, is all over the place. When one member of our party tells the waiter she has celiac disease, he whisks away a plate holding an offending glutenous item, telling her that the kitchen has an “allergy bible” and can make almost every dish on the menu gluten free. Tsai is a big advocate for people with food allergies and has taught his staff to be aware of special dietary needs.
But the workers are not nearly as attentive when it comes to letting us know when our table is ready, even after we wait two hours and then watch that same table sit empty for 15 minutes. We have to flag down our server at lunch to get the bill, and a few nights later, the bartender is so intently focused on placing sprigs of mint in a row
of drinks that he doesn’t
notice our dire need for a cocktail.
Servers tend to bring all the food at once, overloading the table on one visit with 13 plates of snacks, dim sum, noodles, and a huge plate of chicken. Thankfully, the table next to us is empty, and we pile the empty dishes on it as we make more room. Before long, my small plate is swimming in sauces and piled high with bones and shells, but no one offers a clean one.
Blue Dragon has a definite nightlife vibe, from food being served until midnight to the Michael Jackson and Rolling Stones on the stereo. But it’s the delicious cocktails, which at $12-$14 are more expensive than many dishes on the menu, that cement the deal. A gimlet, with lemongrass-infused vodka and a cucumber slice, is shaken into creamy, limey refreshment. The Thai basil smash tastes like lemony ginger beer, without a trace of the basil-infused rye it’s mixed with, and it goes down ea-sy.
It’s a good thing the drinks are so well made. With several hours to kill before you get a table, you’re going to need a few to pass the time.
Follow her on Twitter@ktkjohnston.