Last week a banquet for Chinese New Year at The Garden Restaurant in Chinatown uncovered some notable dishes. This was the site of a chowdown lunch last year and my first chance to return for dinner with friends and family. We ordered a la carte instead of from a set menu.
Fish maw and duck soup – Richer brown duck stock made for a heartier potage than the usual seafood stock. Plentiful fish maw cut into smallish pieces. The unrendered fat on the strips of roast duck skin added more richness but some were turned off.
Salt and pepper Dungeness crab – Huge and succulent, perhaps the best crabs of the season and showing peak late February sweetness. Lighter and less oily batter than R & G Lounge, however more subtle in seasoning. The crabs themselves were of such high quality, they would have been wonderful no matter the prep. The pair of crabs came to $59.98.
Concubine clam stir-fry – My favorite dish of the night, a clean and simple stir-fry of in-season gui fei pong (surf clams) with celery, scallions and ginger. Our server brought out the live clams to show us, asking whether we wanted three or four. He whispered to me that they’re priced by the piece and that he’d fished out the biggest ones from the tank for me. Four clams totaled $46.50.
For preparation style, he suggested steamed with soy sauce and garlic or stir-fried. I requested a stir-fry with sugar peas. He nodded and asked, “With some celery too?” and that turned out to be the primary vegetable component. Not a complaint though as one of my friends commented that it was the best celery he’s ever eaten. And the kitchen’s greater wisdom recognized that the peas would have been too sweet to pair with these clams. Celery’s crunch and herbal tones were exactly the right foil for the very sweet bivalves. The chef’s skill also showed in slicing and cooking each type of clam muscle to the right degree.
Glutinous rice stuffed whole boneless chicken - Overly hard crust but still enjoyable. Probably would not order this dish here again, as better versions abound.
Winter melon – Not sure what to call this dish, but I’ll describe it as a deconstructed winter melon soup. In this case, a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. A solid dome of peeled winter melon nestled with pea shoots was presented in the middle of a shallow bowl of soup.
Actually two pictures are needed . . . then the server cut the dome into rectangles, and popped one out to reveal the chunks of seafood encased below the creamy textured melon. Big shrimp, scallops, calamari tubes, cubes of flounder, grass mushrooms, black mushrooms, and savory scallions and ginger bobbled under the surface. The taste did not quite live up to the showy presentation that night. But I took the remains home, and after steeping together for a couple days, the flavors came together quite nicely with more of the seafood stock absorbed into the otherwise bland melon.
We also had a two-pound clear steamed black bass, black pepper steak cubes, lo han jai, and mustard greens in supreme broth. Complimentary dessert was taro and tapioca in coconut milk.
At our chowdown ( http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/853152 ), we’d tried to confirm rumors that a former chef from R & G Lounge was manning the kitchen. My uncle explained to me that this had been the case, but he’s moved on. The current chef came from Hong Kong and is creating new specialties. Impressed by his winter melon dish and deft hand with the clam stir-fry, I will be very interested in his other creations.
The Garden Restaurant
716 Kearny St
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