Sunday, March 16, 2014


Pretty bleak.  May be more appealing at nighttime.
I think it's pretty rare that a Chinatown Chinese restaurants is recognized by the Guide Michelin, so that was my lure, rather than any familiarity with its chef.  Although famed chefs like David Bouley and David Chang name it as their top picks for dim sum.   Zagat has it on par with Joe's Shanghai, a far-too-popular tourist destination.  So to, the brusque, aggressive demeanor of the staff: I'm not sure if this is part of the show, or just a you-get-what you pay for type of arrangement, but it seems pretty ubiquitous amongst Chinatown joints.  At any rate, it contributes a modicum of energy to the bleak ambiance, even if it is one of unsettling tension.  You'll reach the dining room at Oriental Garden through an entryway lined with fish tanks.  Its focus is seafood, and some of the freshest you can get in New York comes via the Chinatown conduit.  Live shrimp scamper frenetically across the bottom of one aquarium, and large, slothful grey bass frown lethargically in an adjacent one.  Once you enter the room, the only smile you'll encounter is that of the maitre d', who despite the fact that I was the first to arrive, ushered me to a table- that is, he basically  commanded me to be seated, although I think I would've been more comfortable waiting till my guest arrived.  The rest of the staff exudes as facial expression similar to that of the bass.  At any rate, the room was pretty sparse at this strange dining hour of three o'clock on a weekday.  Only one tableful of five Asian businessmen and another group of four filled two of the tables.  Oriental Garden is conveniently open nonstop from 10am to 10:30pm, dim sum offered until 4pm.  And if my experience was the norm, you will be accosted with dim sum before your tush even hits the seat, so if you're not going that route, just turn it down a couple three times and she'll quit harassing you.  On the other hand, if you do want dim sum, it comes out rapid-fire, but get ready to ask multiple times for what it is lurking in her little wicker steam basket, because the English descriptions are virtually unintelligible.

The dining room is generic ugly Chinatown stark.  The red and gold Michelin Guide indicator on the door outside is more intriguing than the red and golden dragon wallhanging, but there are some nice poems written in artful Chinese characters that can entertain and educate a bit if your at a loss for conversation until your food arrives.  While dim sum is provided instantaneously, ordered food takes a touch longer.  Pots of tea are set in front of you as soon as you sit, so
you can nurse away your hunger pangs with the complimentary brew until more substantial fare arrives.

  From a lunch prix-fixe menu I chose a veggie soup, filled with bright vegetables in a salty chicken broth, scorchingly hot.  Peas and bean sprouts afloat, carrots and broccoli sink underneath.  Nothing spectacular,
 but a pleasant, warming little bowl.   And speaking of warming, beware of the stuffed eggplant: this innocuous-looking plate of nightshades ensconces such searing temperature it actually scorched my dining companion's lip.  I guess the peel insulates the incendiary flesh, tamping any steam, so the heat
only releases when punctured... and then, watch out.  Better enjoy a couple bites of dumpling as your eggplant cools, since they arrive just edibly hot.  The shrimp dumplings, illustrative  of the

 freshness of their seafood, barely contain the flavorful pink shrimp inside their thin wrappers.   We also ordered a pork version, but were served the shrimp-and-pork combo instead, which may have been even better than the shrimp alone.  The superior quality of the shrimp made it not too regrettable a misstep, although a bit redundant.  A generic-but-serviceable saute of Chinese vegetables were super-fresh, tender-crisp and just slicked with that mild clear gravy, I guess of chicken broth and cornstarch.  It boasted mostly emerald pea pods and water chestnuts- those nutty, crisp little discs so rare outside of Chinese cuisine, that I find such an exquisitely anticipated treat.  Perhaps a little heavy on the baby corns, though, which I'm quite sure are enjoyed by just about no one.  After this, and a few rounds of dumplings, the eggplant had cooled enough to taste.  It benefitted from a spike of soy sauce, which enriched the silken, oily flesh to contrast
with the meaty shrimp stuffing.  It gave the impression of lightness, but I'm sure the spongey vegetable's flesh had absorbed an inordinate amount of oil, as it is prone to do.  To no avail though, as the rest of our meal was restrained enough to afford us a little extra indulgence here.  So much so, that we actually wanted to order some more dishes, but the soup dumplings we desired need to be ordered forty minutes in advance, which seemed inordinately long at that moment.  So we cleaned off the rest of
 the fluffy steamed rice and called it a wrap.

The spartan surroundings and laughably gruff service doesn't really invite lingering, anyways, and there were no apparent desserts to be had: not even orange wedges or fortune cookies.  Slthough I'm sure if we were going to spend more money,
they'd be happy to accommodate (note: Cash and AmEx only, so be prepared).

Our little lunch wasn't the most astonishing meal I've ever had, but it seemed indicative of solid preparations, fresh ingredients and reliable quality.  I'd definitely return to explore the dinner menu, which looks more expansive on all levels.  The little laminated lunch menu we were given didn't seem to offer a quarter of what is listed online or on the dinner menu, but using this repast to test the waters, I'd hesitate not at all to revisit this Garden.

14 Elizabeth Street
Between Canal & Bayard
New York, NY 10013

(if there's a phone number, I couldn't find it, but if you do, good luck in communicating if you don't speak Cantonese/Mandarin)

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