I have an unwriten list of one-of-these-days restaurants. Oriental Garden landed on that list after Frank Bruni awarded two stars in the Times almost eighteen months ago, but I only got around to trying it last weekend.
Say what you want about Bruni, but when it comes to recommending casual restaurants with great food, he’s as good as they come. At Oriental Garden, Bruni got it right. He should review this kind of restaurant every week, and leave fine dining to the folks who actually enjoy it.
At first, Oriental Garden can be a little off-putting. The large water tanks crammed with creatures awaiting their doom aren’t as appetizing as the restaurant thinks. When the staff need to weigh a king crab, the scale sits on the floor in the vestibule. Reservations aren’t taken, and there is practically no waiting space to speak of. Tables are crammed together, and the décor is not much better than any generic Chinese restaurant that you’ve seen.
The menu is confusing, and far too long. Like many Chinese restaurants, Oriental Garden seems to serve every dish you’ve ever heard of, and it’s hard to figure out what the restaurant really does well. Ordering felt like throwing at a dart board.
Seafood in bird’s nest (left); Lobster with noodles (right)
The Seafood in Bird’s Nest just sounded good, and so it was: a bounty of sea creatures — shrimp, scallops, conch, cuttlefish — all immaculately prepared without over-seasoning or additional distractions. We chose the Lobster with Noodles merely because we saw it at an adjacent table, and it looked good, and so it was. Two dart throws, and two hits.
We marveled at the food that came out to other tables, including king crab, jumbo prawns, multiple preparations of lobster, and a grilled fluke expertly filleted tableside. We also marveled at the guy sitting by himself who ordered chicken with cashews. What was he doing here?
We waited to be seated for about fifteen minutes at around 9:00 p.m. on a Saturday evening. The wait was not pleasant, but once seated the service was competent and fast. The wine list offers about a dozen reds and a dozen whites, none of them Chinese, but all of them quite reasonably priced.
Oriental Garden (14 Elizabeth Street between Bayard and Canal Streets, Chinatown)