Peking Garden

Flavor: Chinese

Ambiance: A bit lacking, but not bad

Service: Courteous and involved – take their recommendations on food choices

There’s no shortage of bright little lo mein joints in the world. The Chinese restaurant – big or little, subtle or garish – is such a fixture in the landscape of our daily lives that it can be easy to overlook, like an overplayed pop song or Muzak.

So I decided to take a closer look at one of them, Peking Garden, a Charlotte Street mainstay that’s under relatively new management. I’d heard a little bit about the restaurant – mainly word of an affordable vegetarian buffet on Wednesday night that has gained a following, which I took as a good sign.

On a recent evening, a journey inside, past the watchful eyes of the gold-lacquered Chinese lions that guard the entrance, initially revealed little to distinguish Peking Garden from many other Chinese restaurants. The empty buffet table rested against a wall, its labor over for the day.

The décor is fairly typical of modern Chinese eateries. The obligatory lotus flowers and pairs of birds are painted on etched glass panels topping blonde wood partitions that separate the dining booths from the hustle and bustle of the service staff. Though it’s a bit bright, it’s nice – but it could be anywhere.

On closer inspection, though, certain little touches began to reveal themselves – details that gave glimmers of hope that this restaurant might be able to offer something different.

First, my companion and I were presented with a bowl of fried wanton chips with a jammy-sweet orange sauce on the side, like an Asian “chips and salsa.” The chips tasted strongly of oil and the sauce was too saccharine for my taste, but I appreciated the sentiment.

Next, we were brought a complimentary pot of hot tea, served in a lovely ceramic vessel with two matching cups. The tea was restorative and a perfect offering for such a chilly day – again, a nice touch.

The menu is a bit overwhelming at first because of the sheer number of selections. To begin with, there are all the Chinese-restaurant standards. However, there’s also a notable selection of fresh vegetables and numerous vegetarian options – about as many as there are chicken entrees. The seafood section reads like the script of a familiar movie: There’s shrimp with garlic sauce, shrimp with Chinese eggplant, shrimp with chili sauce, stir-fried shrimp, curry shrimp, Kung Pao shrimp, Empress shrimp, shrimp with lobster sauce, etc.

It’s also worth mentioning that the restaurant offers a section of “healthy selections” – entrees that are steamed or feature large amounts of vegetables. No MSG is used at Peking Garden, and everything is cooked with vegetable oils.

The first item to make its way to our table was an appetizer of Szechwan wantons. The little dumplings were obviously handmade, and they were tossed table-side in a delightfully spicy and delicious peanut sauce. The wantons were a bit on the cold side, and the portions of meat inside the dumplings were quite meager, but the appetizer was still very good. I was pleased to see that the chili printed next to the item on the menu really meant what it was intended to mean.

We also chose to sample the hot and sour soup, a quintessential Asian comfort food that has found its way into my heart. The soup can be made vegetarian, if one so desires, as can many of the other soups on the menu. Appropriately gelatinous and containing all manner of unidentifiable foodstuff, a hefty chunk of tofu and wisps of egg, it won no awards for beauty. Upon consumption, however, it produced a creeping warmth throughout my body, and a feeling of health, comfort and well-being.

Our final appetizer, the crispy tofu, was also satisfying. My dining companion and I praised it for its lively texture, but saw a missed opportunity in its all-too-thin crown of sweet and sour sauce that, had it been applied with a more liberal hand, would have lofted the dish into a higher realm.

Then, following the recommendation of our waitress, we ordered a modest-sounding entree of sautéed Chinese mixed greens. The heaping platter of exceptionally verdant vegetation arrived exuding a garlicky steam. The prettiest, tiniest baby bok choy I’ve ever seen lay amongst bias-cut slivers of Chinese broccoli stalk and long-stemmed, tender Chinese spinach. It was fresh, healthy, deliciously seasoned and perfect in its simplicity.

Our second entree (also highly recommended by members of the staff) came from the list of specials written on a dry erase board that had greeted us upon our arrival. The somewhat humorously named “amazing sea bass” begged the question, “Well, how amazing is it?”

As it turned out, it was indeed pretty close to amazing. The rather generous portion of soft, white fish was served in a fish-shaped sizzling platter that was set over a container holding a burning ember of some sort, which heated the contents and, our server told us, enabled the flavors to develop. The fish, which rested on a platform of long Chinese broccoli stalks, was remarkably tender. The sauce that bubbled around it in the platter was a harmony of flavor, though a mysteriously pungent fishiness surfaced here and there.

We skipped the rather uninspired dessert offerings our waitress mentioned – fried banana, New York Cheese Cake and such. At this writing, with a to-go menu at my side, I see that the restaurant also offers Chinese donuts and something called “sesame bar,” which I might decide to sample when I order delivery from the Peking Garden. (The restaurant charges only $1 extra to bring your dinner to your doorstep.)

Of course, while eating at home carries its fair share of creature comforts, it leaves out part of the experience – including the signature sounds of the restaurant. You’ve heard of wok-hay, the breath of the wok? At Peking Garden, the rhythmic clink-clank-clunks from behind the kitchen doors were a veritable symphony of the wok. We did, I should note, voluntarily choose seats by the kitchen.

At any rate, it was almost a pleasant song – leagues better than overplayed pop or Muzak.

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