Dare to taste something new at the Westside’s Great Garden Terry Kirts
Bird's nest (above) is just one of many items on Great Garden's eccentric menu.
You can go to an international eatery with the sincere desire to broaden your knowledge and appreciation of a country’s cuisine, and, by extension, its culture. Or you can leave sensitivity at home and go purely for sport — to dare yourself to put something in your mouth you’ve never eaten before that will make your co-workers or friends cringe when you tell them about those glistening snails or those frog legs so fresh they practically jumped on the plate. For diners taking the Fear Factor approach, the more derelict the location, the dimmer the view through the windows, the better. Dirty bathrooms without hot water? Atmosphere! A multipage menu mostly in a foreign language? A map to untold gastronomic treasures! Just take your Tums with you. Unfortunately, for those seeking this rough-and-ready approach to dining, the new super authentic Great Garden off Lafayette Road fails to provide the requisite hole-in-the-wall cautions. Despite its strip-mall locale, it’s hardly cramped. In fact, it’s one of the airier, more spacious Chinese restaurants you’ll find in town. Plenty of tables clad in colorful tablecloths await you inside, as well as a welcoming staff. Even the bathrooms are quite clean, if you can find them in a maze of private rooms in the back. An aquarium of live sea creatures is hardly scary, and little else fails to comfort, save for a few square tables whose artful carvings may knock your knees. Open the menu, however, and you know you’re in for an adventure. The Chinese menu, that is. They’ll give you a more user-friendly “American” menu with more familiar dishes: stir fries and noodle dishes that hardly raise an eyebrow. But heft this delightfully incongruent menu and you know you’ve sat down to one of the most authentic, unusual Asian meals you’ll find anywhere around. But don’t try to make sense of that menu, with its headings in Chinese and multiple missing prices, which you’ll hope mean “Market Price” (and not “at your own risk!”). Dishes certainly aren’t grouped by price. A simple dried fish with cayenne pepper ($8.95) is below sliced abalone with mushroom (a whopping $28.95). An entirely un-translated list offers, presumably, family-sized meals for upwards of $58. The largest section includes small plates (each $5) of gustatory marvels: aromatic duck blood cake, bitter melon, eel with wine dregs, crispy pork intestine. It’s no surprise this restaurant abuts Saraga, Indy’s largest ethnic grocer, where giant squid and meaty cows’ heads await fearless home chefs. What’s most exciting at Great Garden is a small but well-chosen dim sum menu, which, depending on the day, is available much later than the typical brunch. Dim sum items were offered at lunch one day and a late dinner the next, with usual suspects like pork buns and spare ribs, as well as wildcards like curried cuttlefish. The restaurant itself is open until a surprising 1 a.m. on weekdays and 2 a.m. on weekends. Surely nothing satisfies a midnight craving more than a duck blood cake. Unfortunately, not all of the dishes on this big eccentric menu are always available, and it’s sometimes hard to figure what you can actually get. But most of what the kitchen does offer not only satisfies the desire to eat something different but to eat something flavorful and well-prepared as well. Dim sum dishes such as chive dumplings and shrimp balls are light but tasty and no more than $3 for large portions. A turnip cake was crispier one time than another but came studded with bits of sweet and chewy Chinese sausage. Stuffed eggplant is a bit oily but still quite crisp with a slightly spicy aromatic filling. Among main dishes, “two delight” vegetable with crab meat ($11.95) is plentiful, if with a somewhat gelatinous, under-seasoned sauce. Stir-fried beef with chives is elegantly subtle, and the lamb with bean curd casserole ($11.95) is a hearty dish with chunks of steaming lamb in a clay pot with a brown sauce and a tofu-like substance perfumed with onions. On one return visit, I took my creative nonfiction class from IUPUI, a raucous, clever bunch looking for a restaurant experience to “knock their socks off.” The staff handled our lively group with aplomb, seating us at outsize round tables with lazy Susans. Two macho gents in the class thought they’d make their peers squirm by ordering big plates of duck tongue. When their food arrived, however, these formerly daring he-men were suddenly emasculated by the fact that each of the all-too-lifelike tongues came with a wee bone to chew around. They hardly touched them. Impolitely, I’m sure, I steered my chopsticks over and snatched up a tongue. While it took some work to get the meat off that bone, it was definitely a texture and taste I’d never had before — another way Great Garden teaches Midwestern diners to breach their comfort zones, to understand one of the word’s most diverse cuisines.