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Restaurant Review - City Garden sprouts

Fuse it or lose it on Brookwood's Peachtree strip

Novelty sells. Innovation draws attention. Fuse it and they will come.

Some such thinking must have inspired the owners of City Garden to combine General Tso's chicken with California roll on their initial list of plate-lunch specials. Same-same snow-white chicken with sugar-snap peas is served alongside the popular rice, avocado and crab maki wrap.

Culturally quirky? A buffet by another name? Canton-ese and sushi on one plate? As nations, the Chinese and Japanese studiously ignore each other — except when they're fighting a war, which is often.

As lunch, however, substituting rice rolls for steamed rice makes perfect sense. Same-same subbing cooked sushi for factory-made spring rolls is equally common in storefront Chinatowns worldwide.

City Garden's well-made maki taste better than most. Presented on lettuce leaves with wasabe paste and pickled ginger as a witty alternative to hot rice, the cool California rolls dress up what's essentially generic Chinese-American cooking. As a vegetable side dish, the lightly moistened sushi rolls seem somehow healthier and less caloric than steamed or fried rice. They also call attention to City Garden's extensive sushi bar — a potential profit center designed to attract the free-spending, Midtown-to-Lenox urbanites who regularly graze the Peachtree Road strip.

With its bland snow-white sauce, the shrimp with sugar snaps and water chestnuts portion of the plate is acceptable. The shrimp are huge, if unremarkable. Spicy, garlicky General Tso's chicken offers more contrast (both $6.95). Another lunch special, calamari in a one-note hot and red sauce, is simply forgettable ($5.75).

A choice of soups accompanies lunch plates. The inoffensive wonton is preferable to the hot and sour with its unpleasant iodine edge. Next time, I'll skip both and move directly to the accompanying wonton-skin soup crackers. They're as crunchy and delicious as potato chips fried in olive oil. After finishing one bowl, we considered asking for another. At dinner a few days later, a dusky-hued soup special contained shrimp, scallops, mussels, squid, button mushrooms, herbs and an approximation of Thai flavorings ($7.95 for two). Take my advice and go for the crackers at night as well.

Longtime readers and serious fans of Asian cuisine are probably safe in ignoring specials in favor of house specialties. The various lists include appetizers and entrees from Korea, Japan and several regions of China.

Of three specialty entrees we tried, two can be praised. Tangerine beef combines hunks of tastily fried, definitely chewy flank steak with citrus peel, broccoli florets, green onion and red pepper flakes in a rice wine sweet-and-hot sauce. Initially likeable enough, the platter might have enchanted us more had the broccoli (and the dinner plates!) been warm when delivered ($10.95).

Thin-sliced, roasted fresh-water eel with teriyaki sauce, sesame seeds, green onions and vegetables, a Japanese recipe, was just as delicious, if also pricey ($17.95).

Seafood dumplings with lobster sauce is a miss. The stuffing — minced shrimp, squid, crab, chives and vegetables — has a sharp, unpleasant flavor that the somewhat clotted topping of egg whites, chopped carrots, sugar snaps, peas and water chestnuts failed to disguise ($13.95).

An appetizer portion of Szechwan dumplings moistened with dark, hot sauce is much more fun to eat ($4.55 for eight). Dessert — sugary Chinese donut holes, orange wedges and fortune cookies with upbeat messages — provides an equally felicitous bookend to the meal.

The storefront-corner, with its exposed-brick walls and distinctive windows, though attractively made over with a shipload of etched glass, musical instruments, banners, bamboo logs, scrolls and paper lanterns, will be familiar to many as the site of a 15-year succession of short-lived restaurants. Vainly offering every culinary gimmick from Cal-Ital modern to retro fish, these unfortunate establishments have repeatedly failed to find a market.

Given the property's on-premise parking, inconspicuous back-alley entrance and the neighborhood's heavy traffic, it's surprising that neither an on-premise sex shop nor a singles bar has been tried. Sushi is perhaps a move in that direction.

Contact Elliott Mackle at elkcam1@hotmail.com or 404-614-2514.??