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Friday, December 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Review

Break out of your shell — but maybe not at uneven V

Seattle Times restaurant critic

V Garden


310 Fourth Ave. S., Seattle; 206-622-2686

Chinese

$

*

Reservations: available

Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. daily.

Prices: $5.95-$24 (note: among approximately 150 dishes offered, most are less than $10 and seafood specialties such as crab, lobster and whole fish generally cost less than $20); lunch specials (served 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays) $3.99-$7.95.

Wine list: none.

Sound: quiet.

Parking: 10 spaces available in adjoining lot.

Who should go: Bargain-hunting Chinese food fans willing to fish for the good stuff among a multitude of average dishes.

Beer and wine / credit cards: MC, V / no obstacles to access / no smoking.

After nearly 20 years in business, Chau's Chinese restaurant, a tired old haunt once famous for its exotic seafood, was sold, spiffed up and reopened as V Garden. When word about the changeover came touting Chinese seafood offered at "lower than market price" prepared by a "famous chef from Asia," the lure was cast and I bit. Call me a sucker.

V Garden is no substitute for Chau's in its heyday. Despite its below-average-priced seafood and a menu boasting approximately 150 dishes, it leaves little reason to celebrate the reopening of a restaurant venue whose storied past includes earlier incarnations as Bakeman's and Gasparetti's.

I first gave the place a whirl by day, when lunch specials start at $3.99 and this seedy block near King Street Station appears a bit more welcoming. Seated next to the live tanks, watching turtles, lobsters and tilapia, I asked about the day's specials, written in Chinese script on a whiteboard. "Halibut," said the waiter. "What about those turtles?" I asked. "Soup," he said. "How much?" I countered. "$19.99."

Meanwhile, I ate my pan-fried fish fillet ($6.95), trying to ascertain what type of over-garlicked seafood (tilapia? ling cod?) came swimming with celery on my fried-rice-filled plate. Nearby, seemingly more fortunate patrons delved into whole steamed fish, bubbling hot pots and vivid green choy, giving me reason to return with a posse for dinner. And once again I found myself seated in front of the dancing turtles, though one wasn't dancing. He was floating upside-down.

On that night we ordered such a feast that our waiter appeared taken aback: turtle soup ("Not the floater, please!"), Peking duck, deep-fried squid with dry salt and pepper, honey-garlic spareribs, lobster with ginger and green onion and Singapore-style vermicelli. "You need a bigger table," he said, before directing five of us through the second of two small dining rooms to a cozy little hidey-hole. Here we dined in expansive comfort and semi-privacy at a round 10-seater complete with Lazy Susan.

The turtle soup arrived first. Our waiter lifted the lid of an enormous tureen, ladling broth into small bowls while the air around us was perfumed with a familiar scent. Could that be ... turkey? Sure tasted like it. When he left us on our own, I rose to inspect the tureen, hoping to find the meat he'd failed to dish out. It was there all right — webbed "paws" included — and when I fished out some chubby morsels they tasted exactly like turkey thigh meat, only more so. I took the leftovers home in two quart containers, strained the broth and froze it. On Thanksgiving Day that soup was the base for one excellent "turkey" gravy. My guests were none the wiser.

Honey-garlic spareribs ($7.95) were not spareribs at all but deep-fried thin-sliced pork chops, pleasantly sticky-sweet. As for their listing under "appetizers," I'd suggest ignoring the misnomer: This is the full meal deal, and a delicious one at that.

The lobster, cracked into bite-size pieces, was remarkable for its price, a bargain $8.95 per pound. Its ginger and green onion sauce, heavy with cornstarch, lacked distinction.

Squid with salt and pepper ($7.25) was coated too heavily with batter, its seasoning less animated that it should have been given its complement of garlic and chilies. There's some assembly required to best enjoy Peking duck ($24), boned but for its leg joints. You're meant to tuck the lacquered skin and its tender meat into little steamed buns after smearing them with hoisin sauce and garnishing with lengths of green onion.

Attempting to order noodles at V Garden was a challenge.

Once they were out of chow fun (wide rice noodles). Next it was ixnay on the pot-stickers. Third time failed to charm when a Chinese-speaking friend — acting as translator and supplying native know-how to better navigate this extensive menu — ordered "special fried kuiteaw" ($6.95) made with chow fun. Instead we got the wide-noodle version of the Singapore-style vermicelli.

That popular dish ($6.95), sampled on an earlier visit, its thin noodles tinged with curry powder and tossed with shrimp, chicken and barbecued pork, would be a smart option for the less-than-adventurous. Same for the "ginger and beef in clay pot" ($8.95), which is actually a metal vessel, not a clay pot. Bubbling tableside, it's filled with velvety beef and potent with big coins of fresh ginger.

There's clearly a disconnect between the kitchen and servers. When my friend the translator ordered yu choy (Chinese greens), our server placed the order and was told it was unavailable. Next we opted for gailan (Chinese broccoli) only to be told, after another trip to the kitchen, they were out of that, too.

We ended up with a plateful of crisp garlicky green beans ($8.95) and had to ask a second time for a forgotten dish: braised triple delight with XO sauce ($9.95) — the "delight" being squid, shrimp and scallops.

My friend, who grew up dining regularly at Chau's and recalls a childhood birthday celebrated in the big banquet room in back — called this dish a disappointment, commenting on the lack of flavor meant to be generated by dried scallops. I, as a first-timer, would gladly order this again.

V Garden offers a single dessert: fortune cookies. On my first visit, the fortune claimed, "You will dine in an exotic restaurant." By my last visit I was certain that "exotic restaurant" resides elsewhere.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/nancyleson.

Correction: This review of V Garden Chinese restaurant listed the wrong predecessors for that location. The site housed Chau's Chinese restaurant, as noted, but not Gasparetti's or Bakeman's.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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