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Malay Milieu

Asian Garden
Christopher Gardner

Someone to Watch Over Meals: A huge Kitchen God is one of the few adornments at Asian Garden.

Though the menu is mostly Chinese, the best flavors at Asian Garden are harvested from the traditional cuisine of Malaysia

By Andrew X. Pham

A BIT OF GOOD NEWS for the culinarily curious: Malaysian food has arrived in the South Bay. The brand-new Asian Garden restaurant in Milpitas grants diners a brief passage to the Malay Peninsula with some authentic spices and ingredients.

Located in a strip mall, the restaurant is a pale fluorescent affair, its dining room full of tubular dinettes and empty walls. Against the back wall, sodas, desserts, salads and condiments share a cold display case. The maximization of seating capacity leaves little elbow room even for the boulderlike Kitchen God, who has to share a counter with the cash register.

The most impressive feature of the establishment is a refrigerator-size Buddha shrine that glows red with faux candles. Tendrils of incense smoke finger the air, creating a spiral halo behind the statue's head. Fruit plates, gold-etched benedictions and a tea service crowd the altar.

Though they're the best aspect of Asian Garden, the Malaysian specialties account for only a fourth of the menu. Chinese favorites fill out the remainder of the choices, including chow mein, kung pao squid, mu shu pork and egg foo young. The prices and quality of the Chinese dishes here are on a par with most of the local un-Westernized Chinese restaurants--neither great nor bad. The curries and fried noodles aren't particularly impressive: the curries too quickly made, the noodles often overcooked. Soups represent the strongest entries in the ranks of Chinese dishes.

Our seafood and seaweed soup ($6.25, serves four) fortified a translucent, starch-smooth broth with a generous provision of shelled shrimps, squids, soft soybean cake and fresh seaweed. The gently sweet concoction, initially reminiscent of bird nest soup, was actually lighter and more engaging because of the natural pairing of seafood and seaweed.

Although it sounded promising, the squid and on-choy (a spinachlike vegetable) with peanut sauce ($7.95) floundered for want of creativity. Carved into chopstick-friendly morsels and boiled, the squid, while free of any fishiness, had the texture and taste of rubber. The peanut sauce, a gooey gob that smothered everything, didn't register high on the freshness meter.

On the other hand, the skewers of satay pork ($6.95) exuded a rich salty-sweetness, thanks to the deep marinade and carefully chaperoned date with the coal grill. Again, the setback was the peanut sauce. A side of ajak ($3.50), a pickled vegetable dish, complemented the satay pork with flavors to spare. Beneath a cascade of sesame seeds, an orange gloss of chile-sesame oil defined the moderate spiciness of the cucumber, cabbage and carrot, each bit crunchy and sharp with the flavor of rice vinegar.

The true mouth-burner showed up in the day's special, a stuffed vegetable oyster sauce sauté ($6.95). Eggplant, red pepper (read sinus- and pore-clearingly hot) and deep-fried tofu united with lots of garlic and oyster sauce. The kitchen's masterful control of the wok preserved the vitality of the eggplant and red pepper, leaving them fleshy with their own juices. High heat amplified the bright cherry-red of the pepper to an explosive fieriness that could peel the tongues of all save the chile experts. All in all, a very good dish.

We were pleased that two major Malaysian spice sauces, asam and belacan, appeared numerous times on the menu. Since it was in season, we chose belacan okra ($6.95) and paired the asam sauce with the ray fish ($7.95). If there is one thing that this kitchen excels at, it is stir-frying vegetables. A generous basket of scrumptious okras, jade-hued and vine-ripened, was cooked with sesame oil to a consummate green crunch, their pearly seeds poppingly appetizing. But it was the thick belacan sauce, tangy with the marine taste of shrimp, that endowed the dish with a spicy personality.

The asam sauce--a light and subtle broth, ashen toned and filmy with chile oil--blended Malaysian spices with tamarind and a hint of shrimp paste. The asam coupled perfectly with a dorsal section of ray--a bit on the meager size. The sour thinness of the juice counterbalanced the remarkable meatiness of the ray fish, which was as fatty as catfish and as dense as chicken. Taken with plenty of white rice, this entree made a concise cultural impression.

As for sweet endings, the mo mo ja ja and the yam with sweet tapioca ($1.80 each) mollified all the bold chile transgressions nicely with coconut milk and palm sugar.

A rarity on the restaurant scene, Asian Garden is pungent with shrimp paste, tamarind, fish sauce and chiles, doling out these spices in genuine and unapologetically potent portions. That's the nice thing about the South Bay: Many exciting diversions hide in every nook of this valley.

Asian Garden

Cuisine: Malaysian and Chinese
Ambiance: neighborhood casual
Menu: $4.50­$8, $13 for special claypots
Hours: Sun., Tue.­Thu., 11am­9pm; Fri.­Sat., 11am­9:30pm; closed Mon.
Address: 387 Jacklin Road, Milpitas
Phone: 408/262-9888

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From the March 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro

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