348 E. 900 North, Bountiful ; 801-298-2406
This popular overdecorated restaurant serves its own peculiar interpretation of Chinese food.
Cuisine: Chinese, American
Hours: M-Th, 5-9:30 p.m.; F-S, 4:30-10:30 p.m.
Liquor: Full Service
Reservations: For large parties only
Recommended Dishes: Asparagus with mushrooms, banana-filled wontons, fallen chocolate angel cake.
April 26, 2006
Too much sweetness sours the Mandarin
By Mary Brown Malouf
BOUNTIFUL -- "And here's the aioli for your spring rolls," our pretty blond server said brightly as she set down the last of our appetizer trio's accompanying dipping sauces, and I picked up my jaw from the floor.
Excuse me? Aioli for spring rolls? Another dinner at Mandarin, the renowned Chinese restaurant in Bountiful, and again I was flummoxed. On the first visit, our server had recommended the strawberry chicken. Strawberry chicken? What kind of Chinese dish is that? A glance at a neighboring table revealed a pink DayGlo sauce drowning a boneless chicken breast.
Clearly this was cooking from a part of China I had never heard of.
When I say that Mandarin is the most famous Chinese restaurant in Utah, I am only sort of kidding. It's not a huge claim to make. The Chinese population in Utah is small; why should the state boast notable Chinese food? Ever since I started eating in Utah professionally, people have praised Mandarin to me, raved about it even. Public opinion isn't entirely positive -- some casual online research turned up a lot of countering howls. Even folks who agree with some of my more negative comments about Salt Lake restaurants have advised me to eat at Mandarin.
So here I was, and I had plenty of time to check out the place. Mandarin doesn't take reservations unless you have a party of eight or more, and the restaurant is so popular on weekends that our hourlong wait for a table for four was considered brief. The hostess told us the trick when she brought us a "gingerita" and a "tropicaltini" from the special drink menu: Call and put your name on the list and by the time you arrive at the restaurant, your table will be close to ready. We took her advice on our second visit, but still we were consigned to the banquette-lined waiting room for 15 minutes before being led to our table along a snaky path through several gorgeously gaudy dining rooms.
We ordered the night's special -- cashew-crusted halibut with lemon-lime sauce ($14.95). We also ordered more traditional potstickers ($5.95); pork with garlic sauce, a Sichuan standard ($8.95); and coconut chicken ($9.95).
My skepticism was warranted: The stuffed dumplings were thick, chewy dough smothering a heavy lump of spiced ground pork. Instead of one side being delicately crisped, it was cooked to cardboard, invincible against chopsticks or fork. Still, the flavor was pretty good, and we passed around the generous portion.
The house special made us understand the implications of that strawberry chicken -- many dishes were sweet.
The halibut's lemon-lime sauce was more a viscous yellow-green syrup, sticky as Karo. Thin pieces of pork with garlic and peapods were covered in a sweet slickness that coated the tongue like cough syrup. The coconut chicken, which we expected to be sweetish, seemed savory in comparison. Rice, which must be ordered separately ($1), helped dilute some of the sugar. But after the sugar-overload of our first main meal, we declined dessert, even though they are made by the owner's daughter and people rave about them.
When you visit a new restaurant, there is always a chance of ordering badly, of inadvertently choosing dishes that aren't representative of the kitchen's best. We were a larger party the second night; we ordered more food. That's when the server brought that aioli for our spring rolls (stuffed with salmon and spinach before frying), part of the special appetizer platter ($10.95), which also included crab and cream cheese-stuffed fried wontons with sweet lemon sauce and hefty strips of overcooked chicken satay with sweet peanut sauce.
Entrees overwhelmed the tabletop. This time, we ordered the alarming strawberry chicken ($8.95) and half a crispy duck ($9.95), which evidently had been cooked earlier in the day and reheated -- it had a distinctive leftover odor. Strawberry chicken tasted as it looked -- a flood of strawberry jamlike sauce over tasteless chicken breasts, rather wittily garnished with black sesame seeds to look like strawberry seeds. Another special, mango chicken ($10.95) had another slippery-sweet sauce, this time mango-based, with slices of mango as well as chicken.
Hunan pork ($8.95), chewy little pork squares, slivered carrots and green bell peppers were joined by a sauce that was not spicy as promised, but was not sweet either, and so a relief from the sugar when we put it over the steamed rice we had to request. This and the asparagus stir-fried with mushrooms in a black bean sauce ($6.95) were the only truly savory dishes we tasted at Mandarin.
We forged on and had desserts, which were all better than any of our entrees even though none really appealed because of the sugar surfeit of the meal that preceded them. Ice cream is made in-house; you can order it packed to take home, and I wish I had -- the sharp ginger flavor was wonderfully carried in the sweet cream, but my scoop was overdressed with chocolate syrup, dried mango strips, litchi and almond cookies. (Each dessert is $6.) Banana-filled wontons nominally followed Mandarin's Asian theme, but the caramel taste of sweet cooked banana with vanilla ice cream was more New Orleans than Shanghai. Unctuously milky triple chocolate pudding and fudgy fallen chocolate angel cake with ice cream both abandoned any pretense of being Chinese altogether; a relief really. And they were extravagantly built -- a Willy Wonka dream.
Decoratively, Mandarin is a Hollywood vision of the exotic East: The ceiling is encrusted with gilded carvings of dragons and phoenixes, panels of repoussť brass line the walls; the real and the fake are mixed with an eye for opulence rather than authenticity. I love it.
Because -- aioli with wantons aside -- I'm not a stickler for authenticity. I'm just a stickler for flavor. The Chinese have been cooking for centuries and some adventurous chef would have found out a long time ago if strawberries and chicken had an affinity for one another. They do not.
Tribune's rating system
1 star Good
2 stars Very good
3 stars Excellent
4 stars Extraordinary
$ Entree under $10
$$$$ Above $25
1 bell Quiet (under 65 decibles)
2 bells Can talk easily (65-70)
3 bells Talking somewhat difficult (70-75)
4 bells Raised voices (75-80)
A bomb Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)
The Tribune covers the cost of all meals at reviewed restaurants. Star ratings are based on a minimum of two visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit. There is no connection between reviews and advertising.