Z: We were ecstatic when our pursuit led us to Fine Garden Vegetarian Cuisine, a mid-size eatery with a unique mission. Situated at the western edge of San Gabriel bordering Alhambra, Fine Garden stands apart from the glut of Asian restaurants that pepper the extensive Chinese community. Here, vegetarian cuisine blossoms with a galaxy of innovative dishes that place veggies and soy on a pedestal.
R: To the right of the entrance is a pleasant little patio enclosed by a garden of greenery. A lava rock fountain bubbles energetically, while visitors relax as they read at outdoor tables. Yes, not eating, but reading. Lining the walls of the patio are bookcases crammed with books, all in Chinese, about the multiple aspects of Buddhist philosophy--and they're all free.
Z: In their non-invasive way, the proprietors of Fine Garden provide their patrons the opportunity to learn about Buddhism and Ahimsa, the mantra of non-violence that embraces vegetarianism. The restaurant, a relative newcomer in the area, is in a remodeled space that once housed a non-veg restaurant.
R: Our dinnermates, Joan and Larry, joined us in tasting the seasoned boiled peanuts, a chef's offering that sparked our appetites while we read through the voluminous menu. Imagine a listing of 92 entrées along with tempting appetizers, soups, casseroles, and Specialties of the Royal Court!
Z: The spectacular color photos hugging the perimeter of the menu made our selections easy. We chose the Hand Roll and Smoked Bean Curd Skin as appetizers and added the Chili Eight Treasure and the Vege Chicken with Sweet and Sour Mushroom for our entrees while we pondered two other dishes.
R: It wasn't a matter of finding dishes that appealed; the challenge was choosing from the awesome selections. We reached consensus on Steamed Vege Scallop Stuff with Cucumber on Green Vegetable and Steamed Crystal Roll with Vege Crabmeat Sauce.
Z: The Hand Roll made a splendiferous debut perched on its red and black holder. Wrapped in a large, crispy cone of nori was a salad of greens topped with tiny red shreds of deep-fried noodles. Tucked among the lettuce and radish sprouts that rose above the nori were shreds of red cabbage and carrots. Our first bite revealed a tasty, well-seasoned, soy-based dressing that added the perfect enhancement.
R: Within moments the Vege Chicken with Sweet and Sour Mushroom arrived followed by our other selections in rapid-fire succession. The table was instantly transformed into a fabulous feast alive with colors and fragrant seasonings. Generous portions of breaded and deep fried golden straw mushrooms tangled with red and green bell pepper squares and chunks of pineapple. The sweet and sour sauce, while pleasantly balanced, thankfully, did not assault us with artificial red dye coloring employed by many Chinese restaurants.
Z: The mushrooms were succulent, the bell peppers plump and tender-crisp. It was a perfect marriage. Tina, our petite and personable server, told us some people compared the Smoked Bean Curd Skin to roasted goose. We didn't agree, but we did appreciate the distinct smoky flavor of the angle-cut, stuffed tofu skin. Expecting a hot dish, we were surprised when our first taste jolted us with cold. We adjusted quickly and took up the challenge of trying to guess what tiny tidbits comprised the stuffing. We recognized bits of carrot and noticed a delicately flavored shiny glaze over the top of the delicious rolls.
R: A jewel of a dish, the Chili Eight Treasure was an appealing display of perfectly diced veggies and faux meats. We counted 7 items while the eighth was the chili seasoning. Savory with a spicy edge, this innovative creation included veggie chicken made of wheat gluten, Chinese long beans, baked tofu, roasted peanuts, red bell pepper, shiitake mushrooms, and chunks of veggie shrimp. Every bite was a delicious amalgam of pleasing flavors, textures, and spice.
Z: So sure that stuffed cabbage was the exclusive invention of Eastern European Jews, I was surprised to encounter Steamed Crystal Roll with Vege Crabmeat Sauce, one of Fine Garden's Specialties of the Royal Court. These plump napa cabbage rolls were distinctly Asian with a filling of finely minced shiitake mushrooms and veggie shrimp. Presented in an attractively shaped deep dish, the cabbage rolls were floating in a delicate white sauce accented with finely shredded carrots. Nestled in a garnish of fresh green cabbage and sprigs of parsley, was a beautifully carved red radish. The generous quantity of sauce was ideal for moistening and flavoring the brown rice we ordered.
R: My favorite dish was also among the Specialties of the Royal Court-- Steamed Vege Scallop Stuff with Cucumber on Green Vegetable, a true gourmet invention. Thick slices of cucumbers were peeled, hollowed out, and then stuffed with veggie imitation scallops. These were then steamed and presented on a bed of braised fresh spinach, their light green stems providing artful color contrast. Truly a royal innovation, the soy-based veggie scallops were melt-in-the-mouth tender and delicately sweet. Even regal dignitaries could not have wished for a more inspired dish.
Z: Accompanying our array of dishes was a tiny bowl of thinly sliced red and green chiles in soy sauce, complete with their palate-blazing seeds that even heated the soy sauce. Intrepid me, I volunteered to be the first taster. The tiniest bite instantly met my tongue with intense heat. No one else even ventured a taste--wimps!
R: Chinese restaurants that cater mostly to the Asian community typically place more emphasis on their foods rather than décor. Fine Garden welcomes its patrons with simple, warm, pleasant surroundings. Bamboo window shades block the sun from the bank of windows that face the street. One bamboo shade clung to the wall and provided an artful backdrop for three robust-looking air plants. White tablecloths give the room a dressy, inviting look.
Z: I noticed an elegant black and gold Oriental screen toward the rear of the room along with a row of lavender orchids placed on a tall divider wall. Near the kitchen and service counter were money plants and a bookcase of free paperback books. If we could read Chinese, we might have been tempted to study the Buddhist readings. You won't find intimate lighting at Fine Garden. Instead, the restaurant has a bright, cheery ambience that emphasizes the Yang qualities.
R: Not all of the Fine Garden servers have the language facility that Tina exhibited. San Gabriel and Alhambra are communities that offer a little taste of China where Chinese signs and advertisements are more prolific than those in English. Tina is from the south of China. Chef Benny, the master of Fine Garden's creative cuisine, is from China as well, but has spent time in Taiwan and Viet Nam before traveling to the U.S.
Z: Tina quickly tuned in to our vegan focus and discouraged us from ordering Crispy Puff Pastry with Almond Tea for dessert because it contained dairy products. She also commented that the Almond Cookies contained egg. Instead, she brought us a fresh orange cut into wedges while we watched our dinner mates devour attractive servings of well-risen puff pastry draped over tall handle-less cups. Inside was steaming, sweet almond milk with chunks of fresh chestnuts.
R: We were able to sample only a smattering of the menu selections but recognized the dishes from the Specialties of the Royal Court section included many temptations necessitating a future visit. Fine Garden is a restaurant one could easily return to again and again. Even our wallets were appreciative of the excellent value the restaurant offered. Wish it were closer.
Fine Garden Vegetarian Cuisine
Reviewed October 2006