We decided this month that it was time to check out one of the many Chinese restaurants that have mushroomed in the last ten years or so. On the strong recommendation of a friend, we chose China Garden in Milton Park.
Through massive red studded doors, the bright lights beckon diners along a walkway of lush foliage, water features and exotic, brightly coloured and decidedly plastic plants. That is where most attempts at alluring décor begin and end. The main dining room is canteen-ish in atmosphere. The eight private dining areas for parties preferring privacy have an austere feeling about them too. We were seated in the main dining area, and began the daunting task of going through the menu. There are no fewer than 230 dishes to chose from and, dear reader, we scrutinised them one by one.
I am always encouraged when eating in restaurants specialising in food of other countries, to see nationals of that country enjoying the fare. They surely wouldn’t choose the place if it weren’t authentic! But it also perplexes me that Chinese diners never seem to be eating the same food as appears on our menu. Is it universally accepted by Chinese restauranteurs that “we” should stick to the old sweet’n’sour/egg fried rice/chowmein type options? The China Garden’s gargantuan menu helpfully provides photographs of each dish – and there were certainly no pictures of the interesting looking concoctions being enjoyed by some of the Chinese diners around us. We wondered why.
Navigating the menu took half an hour! There was so much choice I felt we were almost bound to order the wrong things. Delicious sounding soups – “all kinds mushroom and chicken”, “sour and spicy pork tripe” or “pork balls” – the latter being, if I understood correctly from the picture, pork dumplings as opposed to pigs’ testicles! Some were pricey at around $16–$18, but four – or even six people could have shared these tureens. And there were plenty in the $6 range, equally appetising – “hot and sour beef”, “sea-weed, egg and laver”. Laver? No the waiter wasn’t sure either. So soups down, 217 dishes to go. Six starters of the spring roll, pork ribs, chicken wing variety from $5 – $10, followed by forty-one “cold dishes” from which we chose one of our starters, billed as “flavoured seaweed (kelp)” which might not sound very exciting but looked pretty in the picture – and was absolutely delicious. Pickly, tangy, chewy and scrumptious. We ordered it as a starter with vegetable dumplings, one of the thirty eight starch options, but the dumplings were delayed by half an hour so we had plenty of time to savour the seaweed. For mains we ordered “griddled lamb with hot chilli hotpot”, “Chinese vegetables with mushrooms” and plain steamed rice.
The lamb (pictured) was as tough a piece of meat I have encountered in years, and wasn’t particularly nice on the palate either. We sent it back as inedible and were immediately offered a replacement. “The cumin lamb chops?” I ventured. “They are tough too.” came back the candid reply. We quickly plumped for sweet and sour chicken which could be served without much delay. We should have just left it – the dish comprised tiny pieces of tasteless chewy chicken deep fried in an immensely thick and equally chewy batter and covered in a sauce that was sickly sweet but had forgotten about the sour. We took it home as a takeaway for the children’s next day lunch – and even they complained that the meat was tough and too sweet.
Meantime we tucked into the beautiful Chinese cabbage and brown mushroom dish – and by this time the dumplings had made an appearance too. They were pretty tasteless until dipped into a rather good chilli sauce. With the rice this was actually enough food for two, washed down with a glass of house wine at an exorbitant $5 a shot for chateau cardboard!
The portions are large. Ideally go along with a crowd, everyone choose one dish and share. There are also good meat or vegetable noodle dishes at $5 which are meals in themselves. We were unlucky – great vegetable dishes and lousy meat. I would certainly go back and choose differently, probably from the extensive seafood choices.
There is not much hospitality in evidence at China Garden – before we had finished eating, the waiter appeared with an industrial sized trolley and proceeded to gather up the dirty plates from around us. I had the feeling that they were telling us it was time we went home and that we were one short step from the vacuum cleaner shift!
This is not a romantic dinner for two venue. Go with a crowd, create your own atmosphere and enjoy some good food.