Secret. Garden. Café. Three of my favorite words, all in a row.
Tucked away on Edward Road (betcha dunno where that is) off Queens Road (a clue, but eight out of 10 of you still won’t find it), this garden – okay, rooftop – café is so secret that only a select few know it exists. Which is a pity, really, since they serve some very good food indeed.
Ssshhh…. It’s a Secret
Let’s start with the location. Queens Road is a one way street. If you were heading the wrong way down Queens Road, Edward Road is the first left. To find Secret Garden Café, get to the very end of Edward Road. The house at the end of the otherwise apartment-lined road sports a discreet little board that says (surprise, surprise) Secret Garden Café.
But wait – your search is not yet over. Enter the gate, and look around till you spot a board with colorful (and enigmatic, since they don’t tell you anything) arrows on it. (Should you make the mistake of entering the open door of the house directly in front of the gate, you will find yourself in an office.) If you have succeeded thus far in your quest, you should find yourself climbing a staircase. This, dear reader, finally allows you to enter the hidden oasis that is the Secret Garden Café.
Garden of Eatin’
Secret Garden Café isn’t a garden – it’s a pretty terracotta-tiled terrace, with a semi-enclosed kitchen area and *insert happy sigh* a couple of steps that lead you straight into Atmasparsh, an oh-so-private mini-spa that will make you want to remodel your bathroom as soon as you get home.
There are only a dozen tables, each topped with pleasing lime-green table linen, and sheltered by a tiled roof. The center of the terrace, open to sky, features Med-style potted plants.
The eclectic blackboard menu is changed daily at the whim of owners Nirada Harendra and Smita Satyanath, because “they get bored” (more on these lovely ladies later). In addition, there’s a placard menu atop each table that features sundry sandwiches, snack -type things, and the beverage list.
I have, on occasion, seen up to 15 salads and entreés on the blackboard, excluding desserts. If you also count what’s on the placard, that gives you a pretty wide range to choose from, whether you’re a vegetarian or non-vegetarian, in the mood for a bellyful or a light bite.
The food, across several visits, was consistently impressive.
First up, the salads. Hats off to Secret Garden Café for serving crisp greens every time I ordered (four visits, and counting). I detected no telltale brown edges, no wilted leaves, and no sogginess in any of the salad greens. These salads are dressed like Nicole Kidman – with class, intelligence, and neither too much nor too little coverage of the essentials.
I have tried the Prawn and Avocado Cocktail; the Ham, Fig and Mozzarella with Almonds; the Pear and Parmesan; and the Oriental Salad. This last, featuring greens, shiitake mushrooms, orange segments, and caramelized walnuts, is my personal favorite. Tangy, zingy, with the mushrooms adding a smoky flavor and chewy texture, the addition of caramelized walnuts is a stroke of genius that elevates this salad from the simple to the sublime.
Non-food aside: I must warn you of a peculiar situation you may face while ordering your salad. Let’s say, for example, that you would like the Mozzarella, Ham, Fig, and Almond salad, but your friend, being perhaps a vegetarian, desires the aforementioned Oriental Salad.
Nirada might spend a good five minutes trying to convince you that since the salads are large, the two of you really only need one salad; it won’t harm you, as a non-vegetarian, to forego meat in your salad just this once. You can tell she feels strongly about it – she’s rolling her eyes at you and gesticulating with her order pad (were she not, you’re certain she’d be wagging an admonishing finger at you).
Nirada and Smita and their distinctly different personalities give Secret Garden Café its quirkiness, its vibe, its je ne sais quoi. Ably assisted by their trusty aides Violet and Ultraviolet (okay, her name is Nirmala, but I couldn’t resist), they do everything themselves – from planning the day’s menu to cooking to tossing salads, taking orders, serving, and making the pasta (no, not dunking it in water and boiling it – any dumbass can do that. We’re talking about making it. From scratch.) End of non-food aside.
The entreés comprise a range of hearty, home-cooked dishes that have obviously been prepared by people who know their food. If I were forced to choose one word to describe this restaurant’s food I’d say: fresh. Everything is fresh and light. White sauce, for example, is made with olive oil instead of the more classical preparation featuring cream and butter. Because the pasta is home made it’s light instead of dense and stodgy. You’ll actually find big chunks of claw meat in the Baked Crabmeat – it isn’t the thick, pasty mess so many of us have become accustomed to.
Things to try:
- Moroccan Lamb Tagine
- Homemade Fettucine with Prawn and Bacon
- Asparagus and Mushroom Canneloni
- Baked Crabmeat (I promise this is not what you’d expect)
Of these, I’d like to make special mention of the Moroccan Lamb Tagine. I have eaten tagine-style dishes on many occasions. Because this North African stew derives its name from the vessel in which it is cooked, there is no “classical” recipe for it.
Secret Garden Café’s version, served on couscous, is fragrant with spices, and contains a delicious medley of chickpeas, olives, and butter-soft lamb. These talented chefs have chosen flavors and textures that marry well at the outset and never contemplate divorce thereafter.
On to the desserts. Ah, dessert. The trouble with a blackboard menu and a whimsical owner is that you can never be sure that the same thing is available twice. I have spent the past month fantasizing about Hedwig’s Chocolate Cake – a French-style, flourless chocolate confection drenched in Kahlua and Kirsch. Alas! It seems to have disappeared from Secret Garden Café’s repertoire, at least for the time being.
I must say that the unusual Passionfruit and Blueberry Cheesecake and the Apple Crumble with Pear Compote went a long way towards soothing my hurt feelings… however, they do not in any way reduce my desire for the aforementioned cake.
Complaints? I think the bread could see some improvement. I think Violet and Ultraviolet could be trained to see to some details (does everyone have a glass of water, and is it full?). I think running up to the blackboard and physically turning it towards each new diner is an interesting way to build biceps.
Should you go? Errr… have you been reading anything at all? Allow me to outline the circumstances under which you should not go:
- You hate the surprise element inherent in a blackboard menu
- You want to ogle good-looking waiters
- You want a lunchtime tipple (no alcohol is served)
- You want dinner (it’s lunch-only)
- You’re expecting ingredients like Parma ham and Kalamata olives (ham and olives yes, Parma and Kalamata, no)
- You want two – or heaven forbid – three salads served at your table.
Secret Garden Café
7/1, Edward Road
(off Queens Road)
Credit cards accepted. Sundays closed.