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New China Garden
* 1/2
Out of a possible five

New China loses its old, richly flavored dishes

It was like I had lost a good friend.

When my wife and I first moved to Fort Wayne, the beautiful little Chinese restaurant hidden in the Marketplace of Canterbury became a regular destination. When people from out of town were in the mood for Chinese, that’s where I took them. My brother who lives in North Carolina still talks about how the hot and sour soup there was the best he’s ever tasted.

But something was new at New China Garden now. The elegant two-tiered dining room with its unique semiprivate, sunken pagoda seating area is still truly a joy to dine in. But the menu is much different than it had been for years and the faces greeting and waiting on me were not familiar.

Nor was the food.

And it was that hot and sour soup that first tipped me off that there were new owners running the place. The intense flavor and perfect amount of tofu, sprouts, mushrooms and egg was now bland and watery as if someone had been adding water to the soup kettle to get a few more servings out of it. The egg drop soup and chicken noodle, which honestly tasted like it was made with water instead of broth, were just as bland.

There were a couple of acceptable dishes, starting with the Subgum Wonton listed under “Chef’s Specialties.” Shrimp, chicken, pork was mixed with a nice variety of Chinese vegetables – water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, pea pods, mushrooms, broccoli, carrots, onions and celery – in a brown soy-flavored sauce with crispy won tons outlining the plate.

The crunchy wontons were filled with sweet seasoned ground meat and were good, but the meats in the stir-fry part of the dish were subpar. The pork was tough, and the beef and chicken were so soft and mushy they had even less texture than mushrooms. All of the vegetables, however, were fresh and crisp, and I especially liked the julienned spears of cucumber.

The chicken was a little better in the Chicken Chow Mein, which also had nice crispy vegetables, but, like the soups, was quite bland. The crispy fried flat noodles on top and a little soy sauce from the table helped it.

The General Tso’s chicken, which I ordered after trying a couple of terrible dishes, hoping at least the New China Garden could get this American favorite right, was OK. Batter-coated chunks of dark chicken meat were fried crisp and glazed in a more-sweet-than-spicy sauce. The only negative was the slight off taste that old fryer oil often produces.

Speaking of terrible dishes, that same bad oil flavor ruined the shrimp toast appetizer I ordered with the General Tso’s. They were really dark in color and in addition to the foul aftertaste, they also smelled and tasted fishy. After just a couple of bites, I was too scared to try any more.

The egg rolls were also terrible. They were filled with mostly gray cabbage and equally gray ground meat and they were just drab-looking and gross. It didn’t help that the place didn’t have any spicy mustard to offer, either.

Having mustard on hand was just one of the things the new owners at New China Garden need to work on. There were several waits, appetizers arrived with main courses and the woman who served us could not remember who ordered what. My parties were seated at large round tables and she also made a habit of sliding bowls of rice, appetizers and even my bill into the middle of the table so I literally had to stand up and stretch across the table to retrieve them.

And in spite of its beautiful dining area, the atmosphere suffered from a laptop in the corner that a young boy kept blaring dance tunes from. The restrooms also were shockingly dilapidated – not dirty, just splashed with patchwork spray-paint with jury-rigged amenities.

But nothing was more shockingly different about this old favorite than the food. The best indicator of its demise was when I was offered take-home boxes for my leftovers.

Sometimes the best part of going out for Chinese is having Chinese for lunch the next day. But this time I declined.

Restaurant: New China Garden

Address: 5745 St. Joe Road

Phone: 485-7521

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Cuisine: Asian

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Beer and wine

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Shrimp toast ($5.95), egg rolls ($1.25), soup ($1.75), Subgum Wonton ($12.95), General Tso’s Chicken ($10.95), Chicken Chow Mein ($8.55)

Rating breakdown: Food: 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net, and you can hear Ryan from 3 to 4 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.