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RESTAURANT REVIEW THE GARDEN : Hidden Delights : The setting's charming, the staff attentive and the food desirable. All that's needed is more diners to enjoy it all.

May 30, 1991|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Garden Restaurant walks a precariously fine line in offering desirable food while trying to survive in a less than desirable location.

Along an endless row of mini-malls that flow down Channel Islands Boulevard, the restaurant is situated in one that seems to be virtually deserted in the evenings.

And the location is having a stronger effect on the public than the food. This is too bad, because the meals here are definitely worth investigating.

Part of the restaurant looks out on the interior hallway of the mini-mall. It's like a Canadian or Northern mall where people have to escape from the weather. It gets cool at night in Port Hueneme, but not that cool.

The restaurant itself is pleasant and cheerful, with a gleaming white-tiled floor, hand-painted decorative valences over the windows, lots of artificial flowers and ceramic ducks.

Stopping just short of too cute, it is simply charming.

They set a lovely table here and the service is exceptionally attentive, with tasteful touches like tea served in ceramic pots and coffee poured from silver urns.

The presentation of the food is also strikingly attractive--shrimp arranged like a baroque statue on the plate and zucchini etched with a decorative feather design.

At both lunch and dinner, the vegetables make the meals.

They tend to use the same vegetables for every dish, a good variety of them too--yellow and green zucchini, plump green beans and tiny orange carrots, all crisp and savory. (The rice at dinner was also a bit crisp, but it came with nice tiny green onions.)

Six out of nine meals on the lunch menu consist of chicken dishes, priced from $6.25 to $6.95. Some of them, like the jambalaya and the Cajun chicken salad shared the same sauce. It was a slightly sweet, smoky, robust sauce and on the salad it overpowered a more subtle pecan basil dressing. This salad also came with a colorful blend of jicama, apples, golden tomatoes and carrots on a bed of lime-green lettuce.

Oriental noodles had whoppingly sweet dressing, more wonderful vegetables and shrimp that was far too tough.

The shrimp with the saffron fettuccine (which also had chicken) suffered the same fate; but this was a still marvelous dish. It reminded me of an authentic spaghetti al burro mixed with sweet sauteed cabbage. The saffron gave it a wonderfully enticing color. It comes on the dinner menu too.

When I went back for dinner another day, the shrimp was much better--just right in fact. It came with the halibut entree (slightly dry) in an arresting curry-flavor thyme sauce.

I loved the dinner salads and their fabulous lettuce, which came with a choice of raspberry or toasted carrot dressings--both of them creamy, unique and quite delicious.

Tri-tip with peppercorn sauce ($12.50) could never be mistaken for filet mignon. It was sliced thin, however, and the sauce was both peppery and tasty.

I had a wonderful time wrestling with the roast ducking ($14.50) which came with a intensely red, intensely sweet/tart raspberry glaze, saturated with fresh rosemary. It was like taking turkey and cranberry sauce to the next level of pleasure.

It surprised me when we were there for dinner recently, early in the week, that only one other table was occupied.

The food is too good for this place to be ignored. I can't say that every dish was perfect, and perhaps the prices on the dinner menu are discouraging.

Nevertheless, I consider the restaurant far better than average and more people should give it a try.

* WHERE AND WHEN

The Garden Restaurant, 271 E. Channel Islands Blvd., Port Hueneme. 985-6105. Lunch, Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner, Tuesday-Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Wine and beer, parking lot, Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club. Lunch for two, food only, $12.50-$16. Dinner for two, food only, $35-$60.

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