I can think of a handful of restaurants that has an on-site garden. But it's one thing to serve your customers vegetables you've grown yourself, and it's quite another to do so next to the planters in which you've grown them. At Il Garage, the brilliant Italian add-on/spin-off to Park Ave in Stanton, you eat among plants, often face-to-face with fruits still dangling on vines. At a few tables, you're so close to the soil beds you can lick dew off a ripening tomato, pluck a sprig of mint from the ground and get buzzed by the occasional June bug.
The name of the place should be taken literally. The “garage” is an actual one, converted to an al fresco dining room by hoisting up the door. There is no working kitchen; all orders are relayed to Park Ave chefs. An ancient tractor is parked to one side. Tables covered in red-checkered cloths are staggered in what was once a working shed. But oh, the atmosphere! An accordion player sits on a stool at the periphery, playing a lilting serenade that mirrors a scene out of those an-American-in-Italy fantasy films, in which Julia Roberts or, for the older generation, Audrey Hepburn finds love and the meaning of life in a pasta bowl. When you go, wear something light, something apropos for a warm summer's evening. As the sun sets, the light bulbs strung above the garden will bathe the entire area in a dream-like glow. Order anything from the menu that has a green-leaf icon printed next to it—it indicates that what you're about to bite into was picked inches from where you sit.
It's entirely possible, as well as completely advisable, to make an entire meal from the list of antipasti, which reads like a guided tour of the garden. A four count of ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms is battered lightly from stem to stern, a crispy product of a gentle, greaseless fry that makes you wish you had four more. For the seared artichoke, the tight bulbs are halved, the firm hearts browned and its vegetal soul concentrated. Don't be shy when slathering on the supplied aioli dipping sauce. The homemade substance possesses a lemon-juice zing good enough to be scooped up with a spoon and eaten like yogurt—something I'm not ashamed to say I did. If the aioli is an unexpected surprise, so is the Robiola dollop on top of a bowl of cubed, cold sugary beets. Although the menu made no mention that it's part of the dish, the creamy, whipped-frosting texture of the unripe cheese makes you forget you're eating a salad, not dessert.
Of course, you need to order the burrata and tomato. Ask for it even if you don't see it offered on the ever-changing menu because here is the dish that encapsulates the whole Il Garage experience in just a few mouthfuls. Embellished with nothing but a few drips of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, the cheese's milky coolness and juice-bursting tomatoes invigorate like tonic. It feels more right to eat this here than a clambake at the beach. Soon, you are giddy from the surroundings and a bit full from the antipasti.
Still, you'll want some pasta. The ravioli is flat and wider than usual, soft UFOs that take a few turns of the fork and knife to dig into a filling of tangy sheep's-milk ricotta and a barely there tomato sauce that, again, started in the garden. The tagliatelle with shrimp is also homemade, featuring Scotch-tape-wide belts of noodle that bite al dente, slide down smoothly, yet still manage to grab onto the nuanced marinara like thirsty Velcro strips.
And I think it speaks volumes about how well the garden atmosphere sways you that while eating chef David Slay's entrée of baked bass, you're more inclined to savor the new potatoes, the olives, the chopped tomatoes and the silky spinach than you do the fish. Slay is rightly proud of his garden. In fact, he will occasionally list a dish as containing something sourced from a specific soil bed. Normally, this kind of specificity would sound smug, but when you can walk from your seat to inspect the exact location, it makes Il Garage not just a restaurant that puts its garden where your mouth is, but also a restaurant that puts your mouth in that garden.
This review appeared in print as “Under the Stanton Sun: Il Garage brings the idyllic romanticism of Tuscany to a restaurant literally set in a garden.”
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.