Don’t Go For The Signatures: Deer Garden Signatures

My last three visits to Richmond have all occurred on Saturday nights, and I ended up having dinner at restaurants in Continental Plaza on two of those three occasions. I noticed on both my visits to Continental Plaza that there was always a huge lineup at Deer Garden Signatures. The sign outside said that the restaurant specializes in rice noodles in fish soup, which I can honestly say is not something that I am even remotely familiar with. To me, the name of the dish made it sound like it came from a coastal province in China whose cuisine is foreign to me. The dish sounded exciting, exotic, and like something that I should try out as soon as I could.

Deer Garden Signatures was exactly the restaurant that I visited on my next visit to Richmond, which happened to be last night. As expected, there were a lot of people both inside and outside waiting for their chance to dine at the restaurant. My wife went into the restaurant to put our names on the list, and she was told that there was at least a 15 minute wait. The “at least 15 minute wait” turned out to be around 50 minutes. The 50 minute wait actually felt more like 15 minutes because my wife, kids, and I spent around 40 of those minutes reading over their menu. As soon as I laid eyes on the menu, I realized that my assumptions on the type of food Deer Garden Signatures serves were totally wrong.  Rice noodles in fish soup wasn’t some kind of exotic regional Chinese dish, it was another name for customizable HK cafe noodle soup. I’m sure all of you lifelong locals have your face in your palms perplexed at how I could not know that Deer Garden Signatures serves HK cafe food. I had no clue. Between the deer and the garden and the fish soup and the rice noodles, I really thought that I was in for food that came from some mysterious, indigenous ethnic minority in China.

To tell you the truth, I was glad that Deer Garden Signatures is a HK Cafe. It meant that my son could order the meat-based dish that he always craves. It also meant that I could order a rice-based dish and leave the noodle dishes to be ordered by my wife and my daughter – the two noodlle lovers of my family.

My daughter went the expected route and ordered one of their signature fish-based soups: the minced pork and dried-fish “fish” soup. She paired the soup with udon noodles,  seaweed, and enoki mushrooms.

The bowl of noodle soup that my daughter received was HUGE. There was so much of everything in her bowl that my daughter couldn’t even finish half of her order. She needed my help. I helped, and helped…and helped. I tried to help her finish what she thought was “really salty” soup. I didn’t particularly think that the soup was salty. I just thought that it didn’t have a lot of fresh fish flavours. What I could detect from the soup were flavours that came from dried fish and from the cilantro garnish. I could also detect a creamy texture that came from the included tofu skins. I thought that the soup was okay. My daughter thought that the udon noodles were okay. She liked the fact that they still retained a chewiness even though they were submerged in the soup.

My wife took the “non-signature” route and went with the Szechuan spicy soup base. She paired the spicy soup with glass noodles, coagulated pork blood, and beef slices – which happened to be the exact ingredients she usually orders at Szechuan spicy hot pot restaurants.

My wife was not a fan of the mix-and-match scheme. She thought that there were simply too many possible permutations and combinations that it was easy to create a miss-match in either the flavour or texture department. The reason that she picked the particular components she picked was because she knew that they went well with each other. She was right. The components did go well with each other. But she thought that the rather flavourless soup ruined the otherwise harmonious combination of the chewy glass noodles, the snappy pork blood, and the smooth beef. The first problem with the soup was that it was not nearly spicy enough. The second problem was that beyond the weak spiciness, there was not a lot of other flavours in the soup. Fortunately my wife is a tolerant person; she was able to tolerate the weak soup and finish most of the other components in her bowl.

After witnessing and experiencing firsthand the less-than-stellar noodle soups, I was rather relieved that I ordered a rice based dish: the free range chicken on steamed rice.

I added a liver sausage and some preserved vegetables to my order because – as my wife always says when I ordered Chinese sausages and preserved veggies – I have tastes similar to “older” people (meaning those over the age of 65). Anyhow…The steamed rice dish came with with some sweet soy sauce and I immediately poured it on top of all of the ingredients. The sweet soy gave the otherwise lightly-flavoured steamed chicken and rice some much needed sweet saltiness. It also added much needed moisture to the dry jasmine rice. The sauce enhanced the the pleasurable hint of gaminess of the free-range chicken as well as amping up the sweetness of the surprisingly sweeter-than-usual liver sausage. The flavours present in this steamed rice bowl were overall very similar to other versions of this dish that I’ve had throughout my life. They were both expected and enjoyable. The textures were also pleasurable. The sausage was mostly dense and squishy, which was again how I preferred it to be. The greens on top were slightly-stiff and crunchy, which was enjoyably expected. The free range chicken had perhaps the most pleasurable texture of all the components in the bowl: each piece had a muscular, bitey give that can only be found in active, non-caged-and-crammed-together chicken. I enjoyed my bowl of rice. It was a textbook preparation of steamed free range chicken on rice with Chinese sausages (if there is a textbook for preparing such dishes). Oh, and lest I forget, this steamed rice bowl was as generously portioned as the two noodles bowls my wife and daughter ordered

The grilled steak that we ordered for my son was the only “western-styled” dish of the night.

The steak was supposed to come with a black peppercorn sauce but we asked for it to be served on the side because my son likes his steaks without any sauces. He enjoyed his steak and finished two-thirds of it before declaring that he was too full to eat any more. I was tasked with finishing the final third of his steak. I thought that it was flavourful and well-prepared for a sub-$10, HK cafe steak. It was prepared to a easily-chewable medium-well temperature. It had a very pleasant crispy-and-charred-but-not-burnt salt-and-pepper-coated exterior that added a lot of flavour to the not-too-marbled meat. There were also enough juices flowing around in the interior for me to notice them. I would totally order this steak for my son again if we ever revisit the restaurant.

I love deep fried chicken wings – especially when they can be had for cheap. They were offered as an add-on to the noodle bowls for $1.75 per order. I ordered two of them.

Each order comes with three wingettes; I finished the first order before realizing that I needed to take pictures of them. They were sooooooo good straight out of the kitchen. The skin was nicely greasy, and crispy-crunchy. The meat was juicy and tender-beyond-belief. I’m quite easy to please when it comes to chicken wings, and these were definitely pleasing wings.

Each of our orders also came with a beverage. My son had plain milk, my daughter had hot lemon honey, my wife had hot coffee, and I had iced milk tea.

Besides the milk – which didn’t need to be prepared – each of our beverages tasted like typical HK-style preparations, which is to say that we enjoyed them. The milk tea was thick enough and not overly sweet. There was enough milk/cream in the coffee; the hot honey lemon tasted like both lemon and honey.

What conclusions do I draw after a review of my family’s first meal at Deer Garden Signatures? The restaurant was clean and the queue was long. The service was efficient and the portion sizes were big. The prices were fair and the beverages were typical. The steamed rice was well prepared and so was the steak. The noodles were enjoyed by neither my wife nor my daughter. My final conclusion? Do not visit Deer Garden Signatures for their signature fish soup noodles; visit the restaurant for their non-signature HK-cafe offerings…preferably on a weekday when there isn’t such a long wait.

Deer Garden Signatures 鹿園魚湯米線 on Urbanspoon

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