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Feb 25, 2013 02:28 AM

Chinese New Year Banquet at The Garden Restaurant [San Francisco Chinatown]

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 ( ), 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
San Francisco
Parking validation for Portsmouth Square garage

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  1. It was a delicious meal. My favorites were also the simplest dishes: mustard greens, soup, clam stir fry, and a few huge crab legs. Everything I took home held up well .

    2 Replies
    1. re: Windy

      I'm glad you and Ruth could be there to bear witness to the alien winter melon visitation.

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        Now I'm regretting I didn't shoot video of The Blob.

    2. The clam stir-fry was a revelation, since I don't like clams generally. I fished out some pieces that looked like chunks of scallop, but Melanie explained they were one of the three muscles of the clam: the "scallop" of the clam. They were sweet and delicious. The whole, live clams were very impressive! (Note that surf clams are considered a sustainable fishery!)

      The pepper beef was a very good -- if slightly sweet -- version. We thought we detected a pineapple flavor (and a similar flavor with the fish), but the server said that it was probably orange peel and rock sugar simmered in the soy sauce. It gave the dish a slightly Polynesian feel.

      We were all astounded when the winter melon arrived, looking like something from outer space, or perhaps a large jellyfish.

      The crab was delicious (better than the last one I had at R&G).

      I thought this meal was a great example of why I call Cantonese cuisine the California cuisine of China: super fresh, high-quality ingredients simply but skilfully prepared to allow them to shine.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        Yes, the beef steak cubes were quite tender, and we wondered if it might have been tenderized a bit with pineapple juice.

      2. Thanks everyone for the detail reviews and pictures. I think I will have to get a bunch of friends out to try it out. This is the restaurant that is right next the Hilton on Kearny (across from the Portsmouth Square garage) right?

        5 Replies
        1. re: gnomatic

          Yes, that's the place. It's been under new management for about two years. At dinner time, they'll validate for two hours in the Portsmouth Square garage.

          The stuffed chicken and the winter melon dish were ordered a day in advance. I'm not sure how much each cost. The two items on the bill that are unidentified were $28 and $38 and would be those two dishes. When I ordered, I asked how much the stuffed chicken would be and was told $30.

          We had nine in our party. In the future, I would probably order three surf clams rather than four for that size of group. We certainly finished the dish by the end of dinner, but I felt like people had more than their fill of this one and the amount was excessive.

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            That picture is worth at least a thousand words :-) How did you know to order those in advance, and do you know if it's a Chinese New Year Dish only?

            1. re: hyperbowler

              The stuffed chicken everywhere I've been needs to be ordered a day in advance. I remember attending a dinner at R & G Lounge arranged by a friend who was not hip to the chicken deal. Not one to let an opportunity to share one with nine other people, I asked Edward, the floor supervisor, whether another party might have failed to show up to claim their advance order. He laughed and said that there have never been any no-shows for the chicken!

              As far at the winter melon dish, I had called intending to order dong gua zhong. That's winter melon soup cooked in its own shell. This takes more an a day's advance order some time as the kitchen has to find the ideal size and shape that will work for the dish. There are hazards to it too, as nowadays, the shell of the melon (or gourd) is often wrapped up tightly in plastic wrap which really ruins the appearance or placed in a special cage. I imagine that there have been cases where the shell falls apart and makes a flood on the table. Another step that can be taken is to not fully cook the flesh lining the skin/shell, but then its inedible though stronger.

              Here are some photos of what dong gua zhong looks like, often with fancy carving,

              So, I found it quite clever to deconstruct the preparation. The melon is cooked more evenly and fully so that it's all edible. This dish can be made with an odd sized melon cut down to order and is not reliant on finding an exact shape. It's much easier to serve and eat too.

          2. re: gnomatic

            Another parking tip is to arrive just at 7. The right lane on Kearny is tow away until 7. You can park in front of the restaurant.

            1. re: Windy

              And along the cross streets to Kearny, free parking starts at 6pm.

          3. Wow, that winter melon soup looks so amazing and intriguing! i am glad to hear that it only took three days to make the flavors come togheter ;) just kidding, still looks amazing and something i would have oohed and aahed over. yum. thanks for sharing!

              1. re: barleywino

                Enjoyed the ribeye steak cubes in maggi sauce and the s&p prawns.