Photos By Doug Schneider
Classic versions of ubiquitous silky egg drop soup and tangy hot-and-sour soups were pleasant, if somewhat ordinary. Soup dumplings, which also seem to be popping up on more menus in recent years, had a pungent, rich pork-and-ginger filling and robustly flavorful broth.
In fact, much of the food here is robust, which is sometimes a good thing — and sometimes not. The overwhelming raw garlic in a cucumber salad was so assertive, it mostly obscured the appealing numbing sting of the Sichuan peppercorn oil, which is no small feat. We could bear only a taste or two. Surprisingly, when our server cleared the nearly full plate, he didn’t ask us if there was a problem with it.
While servers were affable, they did not seem particularly knowledgeable about the fare, although in every case when we ordered one of the many dishes with Sichuan peppercorns, they warned us about the numbing effect. One such dish — a heaping plate of crisp, tender, dry stir-fry green beans — had the signature numbing zing, heat from dry chilies, and an abundance of garlic. In this dish, the robust flavors worked in unison, and we devoured every last bean.
Balancing flavors is not O Mandarin’s strong suit. The tender meat on tiny Mandarin glazed spareribs was lost under a thick coating of the flowery sweet glaze. Similarly, the duck in smoked duck crispy buns all but disappeared when sandwiched in a very rich, oily bun spread lightly with hoisin. We would have liked to be able to taste more of the fermented cabbage that topped the tough sliced duck, but all we really got was a mouthful of the greasy bun in each bite.
Dramatic-looking scallion bubble pancakes, which arrived at the table puffed full of air, also left a film of grease on our hands, but we didn’t mind a bit. The thin pancakes, which deflate the minute they’re torn apart, were every bit as delicious as fried bread at a carnival — but instead of a sweet topping, they were served with a savory coconut-curry dipping sauce.
Thousand Layer Tofu (thin slices of fried tofu layered with pork belly and flavored with chili peppers) was also quite rich, the sort of dish you keep eating even after you’re full. The chewy layers of tofu, fatty pork belly, hot chilies, and crunchy bits of celery struck an intriguing balance of flavors and textures.
O Mandarin’s version of the celebrated dish, mapo tofu, was made with Sichuan peppercorns, custardy soft tofu, and salty fermented black beans — but, surprisingly, with no pork. Not only did we love this dish even without the signature pork, it could easily be our new favorite winter comfort food.
While we won’t bother with the tough Peking duck again (such a pity that the meat was chewy when the skin was so perfectly crisped!) or the bland pineapple fried rice with shrimp, we would happily sit down to a plate of wild pepper shrimp and crispy rice again: The head and shell-on shrimp were full of zip, thanks to pepper and jalapeño. All the heat was tempered by crispy puffed rice, which also offered a nice textural balance.
The roller coaster between dishes we loved and those that we most definitely did not was exemplified by the two experiences we had with whole fish. We were told the steamed whole fish with ginger and scallion was striped bass, but it was musty-tasting — more like what we might expect from carp or catfish. This was also the case with the cucumber salad, which we left mostly on the plate; again, the server did not say a word when he cleared the table.
There was nothing to question when the nearly empty platter that held the crispy whole fried fish with sweet tomato sauce and pine nuts was cleared. The fish was scored into bite-size diamonds, floured and deep-fried, the moist, fresh-tasting result served over a sweet tomato sauce and scattered with pine nuts.
O Mandarin is the sort of restaurant we might return to once we’ve parsed out a few favorite dishes. While the rustic fare was at times overly sweet and/or oily, there were also dishes for which we’d happily return. We’re thinking of you, Thousand Layer Tofu.
Marge Perry and David Bonom are food writers whose work regularly appears in Rachael Ray Every Day, Fine Cooking, Cooking Light, Newsday and online at Food Network, The Kitchn, and A Sweet and Savory Life.
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