Garden Restaurant Chowhound Lunch [Chinatown, SF]
9 of us got together for a very satisfying lunch today at Garden Restaurant in SF Chinatown. Thank you to Melanie for organizing. I took pictures so I'll post them and let others chime in on what they liked and didn't. We went for the Special Set Dinner - B - $138. Substituted the Peking Duck for the Crispy Fried Chicken and added one dish: fried squash and prawns with salty egg yolk batter. Came to $21 each - that includes a nice tip and we got validated parking for 3 officially.
This was a great opportunity to share lunch with several hounds and sharing a set menu for lunch felt very luxurious to me. My only disappointment was the Peking duck. As far as I could tell none of the skin was crispy, and many portions weren't fully rendered. I guess it would have been better if we had each smuggled our portion home and recrisped the skin, as the meat was juicy and flavorful (salty). I found the scallops in the beef with XO to be completely flavorless, but likely ate more than my share of the snap peas, enough to detect that there was some of the shredded dried seafood characteristic of XO, though not very much. The black bass was the standout dish for me, especially since I waas granted the honor of a cheek.
I've decided that this is the place I'll take family and friends specifically seeking out the shrimp with walnut prawns dish. I found this version very well executed--shrimp were cooked well, and the sauce wasn't overly sweet or gloopy. (as a side note, I do a lot of home cooking and I've found the shrimp and mayo sauce relatively easy to master, though I'm a long, long way off on the walnuts. The walnuts here were quite good--completely free of the bitter skin, yet crisp and not overly coated in squishy sugars, as several versions are.)
Thank you, Gordon, for being the designated photographer and starting the discussion. Hopefully we’ll hear from others at the table too.
As I had mentioned in the email to SF Chowdown group, The Garden was affectionately referred to as “Chinese Denny’s” during my yuppy days working in the B of A building 25+ years ago. My colleagues and I would grab a bite --- American breakfast or Chinese food --- when we were slaving in the office on weekends when most everything else in FiDi was closed. This thread from last year touches on its past and the recent transformation.
“Chinatown: Garden Restaurant reopens.”
Driving by, I had noticed the change in the storefront but didn’t dwell on what else might be different inside. Then I heard from some family members who like it so much, they held their Chinese New Year’s dinner at The Garden. And they passed on to me the unconfirmed rumor that one of R&G Lounge’s former cooks was heading up the kitchen. That got my attention and led to our chowdown.
I’ll add my own praise to the accolades for the black bass and the lobster dishes. Clear-steaming is one of the strengths demonstrated here. Both of these were as good as they get. The mustard greens in supreme broth were perfectly cooked and the caramelized cloves of garlic tender and sweet.
Being able to substitute the Peking duck for the fried chicken on the set menu at no extra charge was unexpected. As it turned out, the Peking duck was below average, so I’m glad we didn’t have to pay a supplement. Given the kitchen’s skill in finessing texture and the seemingly simple (but hard to execute) minimalist type of Cantonese dish, I’d like to try a white poached chicken with ginger-scallion sauce or maybe empress chicken here some time.
I agree that the salted egg yolk was too scant on the prawns and kabocha, but I still really liked the dish and I’ve run across many bad examples at other restaurants. The crackly, crispness of the coating really, really impressed me and this was also my first time with prawns included in the dish.
Looking for culinary cognates that might indicate a kitchen lineage with R&G, I’d say that the walnut prawns dish was in a similar style. Large prawns with an on-point juicy crunch, very thin crispy veneer underneath a whisper of sauce, and like R&G, not as sugary or goopy as other versions. In fact, The Garden’s was even less sweet. The walnut prawns is my mother’s favorite dish at R&G, and I feel she’d like this equally well.
I found a photo of the honey glazed spareribs at R&G and my report from 2010,
In comparison, The Garden’s execution was better with cleaner butchering, better frying, and a lighter hand with the sauce, though I agree with sfbing that more acidity was in order. Like R&G, no violently red food coloring stains this dish.
The one dish that fell down was the scallops, beef and sugar peas in XO sauce. I’ve had this many times at R&G, and there it has a similarly light hand with the XO sauce. Here’s what R&G’s looks like,
The beef cubes at The Garden shared the same ruddy-hue, deep meatiness, and slightly chewy (preferable to over-tenderized in my book) texture. But at The Garden the dish also included carrots and celery, perhaps for color, but also adding cheap filler on the plate. Sadly the scallops were seriously overcooked, losing their sweetness and turning fibrous. This dish was low on XO sauce and salt as well. It did make me wonder if this dish was handed off to a less skilled member of the kitchen brigade de cuisine to crank out on the wok station.
I agree that service was a little slow in parts. There seemed to be one less person on the floor than my earlier visit. Yet, to the kitchen’s credit, it managed to turn out a dinner service type meal in the midst of a full restaurant that was mostly ordering lunch plates and/or quick stir-fries. I recall a lunch at Great Eastern that was disappointing when the service staff and kitchen were geared up for dim sum and not our type of meal. The Garden did a better job.
Overall, I was more than pleased with this meal. While a step behind R&G’s standard, the quality is still very good, and can beat out the usual suspects in Chinatown at this price level. $138 for the set menu we ordered is a tremendous value. The Garden’s cooking is better and the spiffed-up surroundings nicer than Kam Lok, Lichee Garden or New Woey Loy Goey for the same or less money. My family used to frequent the now closed Gold Mountain when we wanted a mid-priced Chinatown dinner. The Garden looks like it will fill that niche for us handily.
It was a very nice way to start the weekend.
My favorite was the steamed black bass, which was just slightly undercooked at the bone, as it should be. The lobster and mustard greens in broth were also good, fresh and simply prepared. The combination of pumpkin and shrimp covered in salted egg yolk was fun, although the consensus was that Hakka Restaurant's technique was better. Still tasty though.
I thought the sparerib dish was a little too sweet and could have used a touch more acid. The texture of the meat and the cooking technique was good though, and I liked using spareribs as the cut and having to gnaw the meat off the bone. More typically this type of dish uses these huge flat slices of meat that are kind of overtenderized and hard to manuever with chopsticks.
Overall I thought the meal offered good value. The food isn't at the level of R&G, but it was also less than half the price. The restaurant is spacious and clean, and it was very easy to hear people talking from across the table. Service is a bit tetchy, but to be fair, we were perhaps more troublesome than the average group. Can't address how they do Chinese-American food, but I recommend it for people looking for competently executed Cantonese food in Chinatown at a very reasonable price. Also, bonus points for having translated the set menus into english, as opposed to having separate "Chinese-American" menus that bear no resemblance to the Chinese menus.
It was fun meeting everyone! Thanks to melanie for organizing, to Gordon for the photos, to the Chinatown pros for finding the rice noodle place of my fuzzy memories, to...tm.... for making the trip all the way from Berkeley. Also, I'm sorry that derek was thwarted in his quest for a durian souffle, better luck next time!
re: gordon wing
re: gordon wing
As lunch plans go, it’s hard to beat sharing a very good meal with fellow ‘hounds on a lovely sunny day.
I have never met a kabocha squash fried with salted egg yolk batter that I didn’t like, and yesterday was no exception. I agree the technique wasn’t up to the standard of Hakka or Zen Peninsula but the Prawns Sauteed with Pumpkin and Salted Egg Yolk was still one of my favorites of the meal. This was the first time I’ve had shrimp as well as kabocha and the combination really hit the spot.
I was surprised how much I liked the Walnut Prawns. I thought this would be a bland and overly-sweet Americanized dish but it had good flavor and wasn’t too sweet.
The Peking Duck wasn’t as good as what I’ve had recently at Cooking Papa in Foster City-- the meat wasn’t as juicy or flavorful.
I always look forward to steamed fish at Cantonese restaurants and our steamed bass did not disappoint-- it was perfectly cooked.
The “Dessert of the Day” on the menu was just pieces of orange but given how much food we got for so little money I didn’t mind a little overstatement. It was a very satisfying meal and I would definitely return. You can park right across the street at the Portsmouth Square Garage.
Post-lunch, Derek lead a search for dessert souffles. Unfortunately the Hong Kong style snack place was closed and we left disappointed. I wasn’t totally sugar-deprived however as sfbing had introduced me to some mochi-like sweets from a shop we passed along the way. After we bid adieu to Derek and headed for the garage she remembered she wanted to pick up some tea and soon we were enjoying a leisurely tea tasting at Red Blossom Tea. Besides finding some really nice pu-erh tea it was the perfect finish to a fine afternoon outing on a sunny Friday.
re: gordon wing
Let me add my two cents.
I found more hits then misses.
The steamed black bass was only a little under cooked but it better under then over
The one only misses was that the seasoning was under stated. The XO was there in name only and I would have like a little more salted egg in the extra dish we ordered.
The chef was right on most of the favoring of the dishes and had a light had in saucing the dishes There was not much left over sauce on left on the dish.
There a rumor where the chef has cooked last I think after talking to our severs he is not from R&G unless was very junior chef. R&G seasoning is more right on.
With said I for one would return to try more soon.