My other secret garden

Garden China needs more than a good weeding

I pulled the first fortune from a cookie before any food arrived. A little girl found the plastic-wrapped thing in a large, empty wooden planter sitting on a brick partition. I opened it and broke the cookie to get the slip of paper.

"It is more important to do your best, than to be the best!"

I knew immediately that this fortune was profound, important, and prophetic -- it ended with an exclamation point. I gave a piece of cookie to the little girl. She took a small bite and immediately handed it back. This, too, was profound, important, and prophetic. The cookie was profoundly stale and spongy.

Which immediately made me wonder: If Garden China was more concerned with doing its best than being the best, what exactly was its best?

There was another cookie in that planter. "You will be fortunate in the opportunities presented to you." But any hope that these opportunities would be contained in the food was brusquely dashed after the first few dishes arrived.

Garden China's menu is riddled with clichéd Chinese-American offerings: chop suey, chow mien, egg foo young. But the menu also pulls from other Asian cuisines including Korean (kimchi), Thai (pad Thai), and Japanese (miso soup).

Virtually all of the non-Chinese stuff tried ranged from barely palatable to inedible. Instead of supple and crisp, cabbage kimchi was mushy, with off flavors. California rolls looked as if they were made with slowly curing glue. You could discern green smears of avocado, flecks of carrot, globules of egg, and bits of cucumber if you peered intently. But it was hard to tell whether these ingredients were rolled with rice or some kind of horse-hoof derivative. Strips of nori (dried seaweed), curled and withered, separated from this whitish gruel.

Hibachi beef sticks resembled cocktail swizzle rods. Strips of beef shared space on long, pointy sticks with green bell pepper, onion, and pineapple capped with a maraschino cherry, making the thing look as if it had been plundered from a frozen sirloin daiquiri. A plate of four sticks came accompanied with a little grill, a metal bowl the size of a small window-sill planter with dragon heads popping out of the sides. The server ignited a fuel reservoir and plopped a tiny black grate over the top. "Cook here," she said.

But it's hard to understand why you'd want to do that, unless you were desperate for a set of replacement sandal straps. The warm meat was tough, dry, and chewy -- a jerky snack for fur trappers.

Yet not everything here was a descent into culinary despair. Though big as biceps and knotted with chewy toughness, Garden China's mussels came bathed in a satiny black bean sauce speckled with scraps of green bell pepper and white onions. The sauce meshed cleanly with the shellfish, playing off its briny sweetness in clever ways, adding dimension, subtlety, and tenderness to these burly sea clamps.

Minced chicken in lettuce roll was fine too, if you squinted. Peering at it gave it the appearance of breakfast hash. Arid pellets of chicken meat mingled with diced carrot, onion, water chestnuts, and Chinese black mushrooms woven with crisp rice noodles, all sweating a severely blunted hoisin sauce. But there was a thing of beauty dancing next to this tepid mass: a plate of bright, fresh head lettuce leaves plucked into the shape of a thriving blossom.

Egg-battered Salt Lake shrimp, sautéed shell-on, actually squirted and oozed when bitten. And while the menu made a point of stating that the shrimp dumplings were served in a bamboo steamer, the gummy dough pockets embracing fishy aromas arrived on a plate carpeted with head lettuce shreds. A dessert of crispy honey-banana chunks, served on chopped lettuce and topped with crushed peanuts, was sheathed in a flaccid coating oozing with banana mush.

My last fortune cookie, though freshly delivered with the check, was as stale and pliable as the ones plucked from the planter. But the strip of paper seemed a prophetic warning: "Strong and bitter words indicate a weak cause." Notice the absence of an exclamation point.

 
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