We've all had the experience of walking into a Chinese restaurant and being handed a menu that looks exactly like the menu in every other Chinese restaurant we've been to: egg rolls, wonton soup, kung pao chicken, moo shu pork, sweet and sour shrimp, you know the drill.
Mandarin Restaurant in Fountain Valley has all that, but also some intriguing authentic dishes that will titillate the tongues of adventurous diners. These dishes are classics in China but less well known here except among the Asian community.
We're talking about loofah in crab sauce, intestine in hot pot and sea cucumber with shrimp egg. There is, in fact, a whole category of sea cucumber and abalone dishes. Bean skin roll, jellyfish, filet of eel and sliced tripe in sour cabbage soup are also found here.
We were not brave enough to order any of these, but we did have some dishes that were not familiar to us that we quite enjoyed.
Mandarin is in a large attractive modern space with white walls, blond wood furniture, high ceilings and large fiddle-leaf fig trees displayed around the room. Comfortably seated, we studied the menu.
Our waiter, who at first tried to steer us toward the more standard dishes, finally suggested, from among the cold appetizers, drunken chicken. Although not new to us, it doesn't seem to appear on menus very much anymore. Perhaps it's due to the look of the dish, which is a plate of pallid poultry, but if you get past this superficial issue, you are in for a treat.
Their version of sliced-through-the-bone, cold poached and marinated chicken has a gentle taste of shao hsing wine (a sort of sherry), a hint of sweetness and a wonderful subtle flavor that left us chewing on the bones.
More familiar were scallops in black bean sauce. The sauce on the tender seafood was subtle and complemented the scallops rather than overwhelming them as black bean sauce can do if it's too thick or salty.
Especially notable were the sweet spring onions and wonderful green peppers that tasted like they were just plucked from somebody's garden.
Vegetables seem to shine here. We loved the Chinese mustard greens with black mushrooms (matsutake). These greens are a different vegetable than we see in our markets. They looked more like baby bok choy, but the flavor has a slight mustardy underpinning, which is much more interesting. The generous amount of thick, chunky earthy mushrooms was quite surprising and quite delicious.
Somewhat disappointing was shredded duck, country style. Our waiter had vainly tried to persuade us to have the tea-smoked duck (a deep-fried preparation) but we thought this would more interesting.
Served wrapped in pancakes, the shredded duck and an equal amount of thin batons of celery were bathed in a one-note chili sauce that was quite salty. The flavor was too intense yet boring. We should have listened.
Because almost every table around us had ordered the honey-glazed walnut shrimp and the owner said people come especially for this dish, we simply had to try it. Their version of this popular dish of deep-fried shrimp has a very light batter and is less sweet than most. It had the large glazed walnut halves but just a hint of the usual creamy mayonnaise sauce. Instead, there was a light honey glaze on the plump, juicy shrimp.
Their complimentary dessert exemplifies why saving room for dessert in a Chinese restaurant is not necessarily the best idea. It was neon orange gelatin, which tasted like the color not the fruit. Our sweet waiter, sensing our dismay, asked if we would prefer the almond gelatin, and we said yes. This was marginally better, with little cubes of almond flavored gelatin in fruit cocktail sauce.
Mandarin Restaurant is one of the many enjoyable dining adventures to be had in Orange County.