Eighth Street's southernmost commercial block has looked like something out of a sprawl/decay documentary for much of the past four years. The stretch houses the empty shells of many a failed restaurant. Yet hope springs anew in the form of Asian Garden, which offers a formidable array of Indian, Tibetan and Nepali specialties.
Narayan Shrestha, who also opened Everest Nepal restaurant on Bijou Street, has done his best to breathe new life into this space. Beneath dramatic chandeliers, 13 tables fill the room's center. A wall of windows, the foyer and two banks of elevated booths complete the arrangement.
Each booth resides behind its own little archway, framed by mantles of the Buddha and Mandalas. These humorously contrast with the glass dividers, whose etchings of eagles soaring over tree-studded mountaintops evoke the previous tenant.
Further vestigial oddities AstroTurf and Pepsi umbrellas spill outside on the otherwise delightful patio, which offers plentiful seating oriented toward a meticulously landscaped garden showcasing iconic marigolds and an elaborate fountain.
The extensive Indian offerings are categorized by style of preparation. Tibetan noodles, Nepali curries and interesting soups round out the menu. Shrestha hopes to offer Thai dishes too, but until he finds the right chef, he's sticking to what he does well. The crispy-bottomed, slightly toothsome naan ($1.95) and the fat samosas ($4.95), whose whole cardamom pods impart a compelling floral element, are only two examples.
When vegetables star, their flavors stay true and play well with accompanying sauces. Although slightly different every time, the tomato coconut soup is a prime example, as the tomato rings true through layers of coconut milk, green herbs and a bounty of spices.
Intensely green saag paneer offers pure flavors of spinach and cream. Cascading over chunks of carrot, pea and cauliflower, creamy vegetable korma shows nuts, Indian spices, bursts of smoke and fresh tomato. The fluffy baigan bartha offers a beam of ripe eggplant, while the thick, cumin-spiked daal retains a sprightly lentil freshness in a brooding stew.
Meatier offerings also impress. Hunks of chicken and lamb are juicy and flavorful, whether arriving sizzling from the tandoori oven or simmering in a paprika- and chile-spiced Makhani sauce. Chicken tikka masala, lurid orange, bursts with yellow spices, clean curry and creamy coconut milk. Dark red curry, spiced hot with plenty of smoke, charred tomatoes and roasted spices, verily dances with flavorful lamb before yielding to a core of face-tingling heat.
Generous entres, ranging from $10 to $15, can be spiced to taste and are accompanied by well-made basmati rice. At lunch, a large buffet runs $7.95, with only a minor dip in quality. A full bar is on the way.
Asian Garden offers a relaxing repast, and its staff couldn't be friendlier going so far as to serve me free tea on the patio while waiting for a to-go order. We should return such kindness with an equally warm welcome to the neighborhood.
This place deserves it. firstname.lastname@example.org
1747 S. Eighth St., 477-6997
Lunch buffet: Daily, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Daily, 5-9:30 p.m.