Paradise lost at The Garden 

The ambience is a thing of beauty, but everything else fails to blossom.

The kinetic energy at the heart of Central Avenue spills over into The Garden; their courtyard has a magical atmosphere. An abstract stained glass bird sculpture hovers silently in banyan trees just above the diners, who are lit by the soft white Christmas lights that rim the historical porch. In fact, the building oozes an aura of times past when Babe Ruth and JFK were guests and a young flame-out ’60s rocker named Jim Morrison performed before he discovered leather pants. Sometimes when you’re on the town, food isn’t the main focus.

You may just want to listen to some live jazz, or the warbling of a local troubadour, have a few drinks, and chill. Even so, The Garden is maddeningly disappointing.

The blue cheese and Kalamata olive pate is soft and overly salty, though nearly saved by crispy, warm pita wedges. Gummy potato gnocchi are swaddled in pesto that has no punch; basil is present but doesn’t sing — the olive oil, Parmesan, pine nuts and garlic are totally muted. Conversely, garlic invades the eggplant hummus, so the chickpea, sesame and lemon have no choice but to surrender. There’s no sense of how ingredients are combined, in balance, to be greater than the parts. Luckily, Tommy’s tips are simpler, tasty though one-dimensional — medium rare, with good beef flavor touched with olive oil & garlic. A curried mussel appetizer is the only other choice, of the many that we tried, that comes even close to being worth ordering. Warm artichoke and spinach dip is creamy… but the artichoke seems to have taken the night off.

The wine list is one step above pitiful; the sangria is medicinal and had to be returned. Perhaps if the management engaged a sommelier to list wines by the glass for each entrée, they could educate customers and improve their bottom line. Sauvignon Blanc, which would match well with several of their dishes, is nowhere to be found. So we decide to order Riesling, which is very food-friendly and often misunderstood. Despite a slight sweetness, it brings palate-cleansing acidity to the table.

We should’ve known there was a problem because Riesling is actually misspelled; there was a bait and switch — the single “Reisling” listed on the menu was not what was delivered. But Château Ste. Michelle Riesling is a great bargain wine, well worth $8 at Costco… but the markup to $32 is a bit much. Fortunately, the food at The Garden is modestly priced; unfortunately, it isn’t worth even the humble cost on the menu. I kept dreaming Gordon Ramsay would pop out, declare The Garden a “Kitchen Nightmare” and put things right. Almost everything that exits the kitchen indicates a lack of finesse or just a misunderstanding of craft.

Entrées reach to be mediocre. Salmon Royale is overcooked, its crabmeat topping somehow pasty and slightly singed at the same time. The catch of the day is the mahi-mahi, which is available in two of the printed entrées. We opt for the Marsala topping, which is merely ordinary at best. Stuffed chicken breast is dry and appears to be filled with the same spinach and artichoke-less dip we had as an appetizer. And the green bean garnish limps to the plate.

The burger is ho-hum, with fries, no surprise, that are mushy. This is the second time this month I’ve encountered underwhelming fries. How is it that I can get perfectly crisp French fries with a creamy potato center at the minor-league ballpark in Dunedin (where the food is understandably second-rate) and yet full-service restaurants can’t master basic techniques?

Desserts fare no better. The bread pudding is dry without any custardy lusciousness; it’s served with a small drizzle of caramel that has no chance of providing rescue. The key lime pie is odd — it actually tastes chalky, light when it should be creamy; it resembles a cloyingly sweet citrusy Tums pie. The flourless chocolate cake is really just a second-tier brownie — density without intensity.

I spent years producing jazz festivals and promoting singer-songwriters, so I rejoice that The Garden brings live music to the Bay; the potential is unlimited. However, this is a restaurant and not a concert venue. The music is generally too loud and precludes normal dinner conversation. The legendary Buster Cooper, who was in Duke Ellington’s band, is an accomplished, charismatic player, but shows why the trombone shouldn’t front a trio with bass and drums; a friend visiting from England quipped, “This is the soundtrack from my migraines” as she listened to improvisations on the Flintstones theme. The ambience is so conducive to a wonderful experience that The Garden’s shortcomings are particularly annoying.

Do the owners care? Does the kitchen have any guidance or pride? The wait staff is understandably relaxed, but seems distracted and untrained. There is neither rhyme nor reason to the bread or wine service. Is there a coherent vision for what The Garden could be? Next week, we’ll look at four superb BBQ restaurants from all corners of the Bay; each demonstrates obvious pride and masterful technique in a style of food that is not noted for finesse. So why can’t an historic restaurant and music venue rise to the occasion? The disconnect that pervades almost every facet of what should be a sparkling regional gem has me wailing the blues.

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