Entering East Garden, you encounter a series of increasingly tantalizing – and ironically, given the restaurant’s name, at times disorienting – clues about the experience that awaits.
For starters, the entrance is in the rear of the building as seen from Walnut Street, where East Garden opened in February. You reach it via Ledsome Lane, an access road shared by a couple of motels and a handful of restaurants.
Just inside the door, a list of specials written on a dry erase board in Chinese and English – including such exotica as steamed stonefish and a dish mysteriously named “hollow green” – is the first sign that this is not just another Chinese strip mall eatery.
Once you’re seated, and your eyes have adjusted to the bands of color-morphing LEDs on the ceilings and walls (which, depending on your aesthetic sense and your mood, will strike you as either captivating or distracting), you’ll no doubt spot the tanks of live lobsters, crabs and what must surely be some of the ugliest fish ever spawned.
Now things are really looking promising for the adventurous foodie.
Those ugly fish in the tank are stonefish (go ahead, look it up), and they’re considered a delicacy by fans of the Cantonese cuisine that is East Garden’s specialty. A relative of the aptly named scorpionfish, stonefish’s menacing looks belie its delicate flesh. The venomous barbs are removed before steaming, but the fish is otherwise served whole. Anyone who isn’t scared off – and is willing to commit to the tedious work of teasing the flesh from its many bones – will be rewarded with a mild flavor and a custardy texture, complimented by a light soy- and ginger-tinged broth.
If stonefish sounds a little too exotic for your taste, you might opt instead to have the chef transform one of those lobsters in the tank into another special: lobster with ginger and scallions. Cut into sections, dusted with cornflour and briefly deep-fried before stir-frying in a translucent glaze punctuated with the dish’s namesake aromatics, the preparation is a Cantonese classic, expertly rendered.
“Hollow green” turns out to be Chinese water spinach, whose hollow stems (hence the name) give crunchy counterpoint to leaves that, stir-fried just until tender, are indeed reminiscent of spinach. The dish is served in ample portion for four to share as a family-style side.
Venture beyond the half dozen or so specials on the board, and the regular menu expands the options to include an extensive survey of the Cantonese repertoire, with a sprinkling of other regional specialties as well as the obligatory Chinese-American favorites. The list, which includes a number of items that may be unfamiliar (fried blue crab paste, anyone?) among the scores of dishes spread over a multipage menu, can be overwhelming. Meiling Chien, the restaurant’s hospitable manager, is happy to help navigate.
Chien will point out that East Garden is one of the few area restaurants to serve Peking duck. She’ll explain that East Garden’s team of veteran chefs include a dedicated dim sum chef, noting that dim sum is served from the traditional carts on weekends, and can be ordered from the menu Monday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. And she’ll tell you some of her personal favorite dishes – house special mei fun, for one, which serves up shrimp, scallops, Chinese mushrooms and pickled mustard greens in a skein of thin rice noodles.
Though I barely scratched the surface of the offering over the course of three visits, I came away with a few favorites of my own: Salt and pepper walleye, for one, fingers of the mild white fish fried in a tempura-like batter; and stir-fried lotus root, a vegetarian cornucopia that also includes snow peas, Chinese black mushrooms, yam root (whose neutral flavor and crunchy bite are reminiscent of bamboo shoots) and loofa (pale green ribbons with a supple texture and a gentle floral sweetness).
I’d happily return for an encore presentation of e-fu noodles with mushrooms, too, an umami bomb of shiitakes and wheat noodles in a classic brown sauce, served over vivid green stems of Chinese broccoli. Or yu choy and beef, a savory stir-fry that pairs lean, tender petals of beef with yet another variety of Chinese green (you’ve probably figured out by now that East Garden’s vegetarian selection is second only to its seafood offering).
The kitchen doesn’t often stumble, but when it does it can fall hard. Scallion pancakes were overcooked to the point that the scallions were dark brown recently. On another night, the filling in an eel roll appetizer tasted unappetizingly fishy.
Still, hits far outnumber misses, and Meiling Chien says management is working to iron out a few new-restaurant wrinkles. They’re tweaking the dinner offering in response to customer comments, and adding more vegetarian options to the lunch menu. Given the evidence so far, it’s clear that East Garden is already well on the way toward finding its direction.
1104 Ledsome Lane, Cary
Atmosphere: vibrant contemporary Asian
Noise level: moderate
Service: attentive and helpful
Recommended: salt and pepper walleye, stir-fried lotus root, yu choy with beef, seafood and vegetable specials
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.