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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, November 14, 2003

Quality cuisine Quality cuisine (November 14, 2003)

Mandarin Gourmet offers fresh food at fair prices

by Dale F. Bentson

Timmie Cheng's parents were not in the restaurant business. She acquired her culinary skills the hard way, being a waitress, working in kitchens, cooking, supervising and learning how to survive in an extremely competitive business in Los Angeles. In 1988, she and her family opened the Mandarin Gourmet restaurant in San Jose. Two years later, the Palo Alto location was opened and in 1993 a Cupertino site was added. Palo Alto has long been a favorite for locals with its prime location and elegant decor.

The inviting dining room, cloaked in muted grays, greens and creams, is full of linen-covered tables with intimate booths and soothing classical music. The subdued lighting is not overpowering, as it tends to be in many Asian restaurants. Artifacts of Chinese wall art and sculpture, which look as if they might have been on loan from the Asian Art Museum, grace the dining room. Hot tea was served immediately as we pondered the five-page menu.

We started with one of our favorite Chinese foods, pot stickers ($6.95), a half-dozen plump, pork-stuffed dumplings. On a subsequent visit we ordered the vegetarian pot stickers ($6.95), which were filled with chopped baby bok choy, carrots and black mushrooms. Both were tasty, especially when dipped into the oil, rice vinegar and thick house-made chili sauce that accompanied the dishes. The four B.B.Q. spareribs ($6.95) were large and meaty, but I found them to be chewier than I expected.

The excellent chicken salad ($8.25 small; $14.95 large) contained shredded chicken breast, lettuce, peanuts and rice noodles drizzled with a special house sesame dressing. The best Chinese chicken salads use fresh ingredients that are assembled just before serving, to retain their delicate flavors and crispness. Won Ton in Hot Oil ($6.95) featured a heaping bowl of pork-stuffed won tons adrift in an appetizing garlic, sesame and peanut butter sauce. I hate peanut butter but I could not distinguish it in this dish. The peanut butter -- Cheng's "secret" ingredient -- added just enough nuttiness to offset the garlic. It worked.

One of the more dazzling presentations was the Phoenix Seafood Delight ($16.95). Sauteed prawns, scallops, white fish, tiny pieces of corn, snap peas, bamboo shoots, red and green bell peppers and asparagus were served in a sculptured, edible nest. The seafood was fresh and tender, while the vegetables were cooked al dente.

The Mandarin Gourmet is not chintzy with its portions; all dishes are prepared family-style -- enough to pass around the table to share. From the "Healthy & Light" section of the menu we ordered steamed prawns ($11.95). The dish was served with the same medley of perfectly prepared vegetables. We had a choice of four sauces (including garlic, wine and oyster), but opted for the kong pao [sic], a satisfyingly spicy but not-too-hot chili sauce.

The Peking chicken ($11.55) consisted of chunks of poultry in a light batter that had been sauteed and finished with a sweet and pungent sauce (rice vinegar and a tomato paste condiment). The chicken was fresh and tender, while the sauce was a perfect adjunct to the sauteed batter.

My personal favorite was the tangerine chicken ($11.55), which was new to the menu: sliced chicken marinated and sauteed with tangerine peels and chili pods. The chicken was light and delicate. The red chili pods tingle in the mouth but not too hot. The heat from peppers is in the seeds, not the pods.

The only dish that disappointed was the twice-cooked pork ($9.55). The meat was blanched then flash sauteed. It was served with bamboo shoots, tofu, red and green bell peppers in a "spicy" sauce that was far too mellow. This pork dish was the sole item that did not strike me as fresh; perhaps the blanching toughened the meat. The Mongolian beef ($9.95), on the other hand, was tantalizing and full of flavor on a bed of crispy noodles, scallions and hot red peppers. The beef was melt-in-your-mouth tender.

Chinese cuisine is not especially noted for its desserts and the Mandarin Gourmet offers but four. The ubiquitous green tea ice cream ($3.25) is a safe bet, but the best is the glazed candied banana ($6.95). Pieces of ripe banana were rolled into six sweet dough balls, sauteed and sprinkled with sugar. The dough balls were then flambeed tableside in a high octane rum. As the sugar caramelized, the dough balls were immersed into a bucket of ice water to stop the caramelization immediately. The result was a tasty dessert -- sticky on the outside, decidedly soft on the inside. One order is enough to satisfy two or three diners.

Mandarin Gourmet offers 22 different luncheon combinations. All are served with the soup of the day, (a toothsome hot and sour soup the day I had lunch) egg roll and rice for $8.95. A banquet menu is available to parties of six or more. The restaurant also boasts a full bar. The wine list, while not extensive, offered a dozen wines by the glass, ranging from $5.50 for a Meridian chardonnay to $7.50 for a glass of Sterling Vineyard Central Coast merlot. The preponderance of wines were Californian, mostly Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot. Plum wine and sake were also available.

Service was friendly and attentive. I asked my waiters numerous questions during my visits, and they invariably and patiently explained the nuances of the cuisine to sufficiently satisfy my curiosity.

Mandarin Gourmet has been around for 13 years. It could only have survived the roller-coaster restaurant business that long by tending to the minutia of its trade: fresh ingredients, attentive service, comfortable surroundings and fair pricing.

Mandarin Gourmet, 420 Ramona St., Palo Alto; (650) 328-8898

Hours: Lunch: Monday - Saturday 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday - Saturday 5 - 10 p.m.; Sunday dinner only 5 - 9:30 p.m.
Reservations: yes Credit cards: yes Parking: city lots or valet ($5.50) Full bar: yes Children: high chairs and boosters Private dining and banquet facilities: no Catering: yes Take out: curbside pick up Noise level: moderate Bathroom cleanliness: good, although the lock in one of the stalls in the women's restroom is rusted through and cannot be closed properly.
Capsule Mandarin Gourmet: Mandarin cuisine featuring excellent pot stickers, tasty won tons in hot oil, great tangerine chicken, beautifully prepared fresh vegetables and one notable dessert. Small but serviceable wine list. Attractive, contemporary dining room is decorated with Chinese artifacts. Full bar. Comfortable. Great for families.


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