Tuna Liu describes the style of cuisine at his restaurant, Ginger Bistro, as “Japanese soul food.”
A steaming bowl of ramen noodles simmered with broth, vegetables and meat. Hibachi, Japan’s version of mouth-watering barbecue. And, of course, sushi, which wraps any number of savory ingredients into bite-sized morsels of umami goodness.
Ancient City Eats:The T.R.E.N. in St. Augustine is all about cooking with soul
Liu likes to think of them all as comfort food — dishes that soothe the mind and belly and for which savoring is an essential part of the culinary experience.
Though Chinese by nationality, once Liu entered the U.S. 16 years ago — first residing in New York, then Jacksonville — he absorbed his knowledge of the dining industry working every job, from dishwasher to chef, in Japanese restaurants.
“It’s what I learned from, and learned to do best,” Liu said in a recent interview with The Record.
Just 28 at the time, Liu launched Ginger Bistro in St. Augustine two years ago with wife Eva.
With so much of the menu centered around fresh ingredients, especially fish and vegetables, Liu said he takes pride in knowing the food he serves is the best in terms of taste, scent and texture.
Liu considers himself very passionate about food and said he dreamed of owning his own establishment so he could unleash his creativity and create a style of Asian cuisine that was uniquely his own.
Part of that vision is based squarely in tradition: For example, the ramen noodle dishes Ginger Bistro is known for, which begin with a pork stock — the foundation of the dish — simmered for over a day.
Ramen is a Japanese dish with a translation of “pulled noodles.” It consists of wheat noodles served in a meat- or occasionally fish-based broth, often flavored with miso or soy sauce. It is topped with a variety of ingredients that are often regionally inspired.
The restaurant’s Tonkotsu ramen is its best-selling and original version of the meal, made with pork bone broth, bamboo shoots, corn, shitake mushrooms, fish cake, soy-marinated egg and ginger scallions.
Those who are more daring may choose to add a hot kimchee sauce (Korean in origin) made from fermented soybean paste.
Sushi is another staple on the menu at Ginger Bistro, served either at the sushi bar or tableside and Liu, again, takes pride in how the dishes are served to guests, both in the hand-crafted precision of the rolls as well as attention to presentation, including colorful greenery and flowers which artfully decorate each plate.
“In this case, we are not cooking anything [sushi] so we need to really make it look special,” said Liu.
Two of the most popular customer favorites are the Honey Moon roll (tuna, salmon, yellowtail and avocado rolled with soy paper and served with eel and yum yum sauce) and the Flagler roll (spicy tuna and kani, topped with albacore tuna, fried red onion and garlic sauce).
“Some people like it more sweet; some people like it more spicy,” said Liu.
If possible, and the kitchen has the ingredients on hand, the restaurant tries to accommodate special menu requests as well.
Two years later, with a strong word-of-mouth following and strong reviews, newcomers are still discovering his bistro and Liu said he continues to strive toward excellence.
“We’re still learning how to be the best,” said Liu. “That’s what I always try to be, the best around.”
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 12 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday
Address: 1835 US 1 South, St. Augustine
Ancient City Eats appears every Thursday in The Record. If you know of any restaurants or chefs that should be profiled, contact Colleen Jones at 914-494-1238 or [email protected].