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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 11, 2003

Mandarin takes fresh approach with bold flavor

By Matthew Gray
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

The Mandarin Restaurant's round table allows diners to eat family-style, sharing dishes with the aid of a lazy susan. The restaurant has a Kapi'olani Boulevard address, but the Mandarin actually faces Cooke Street, near Kawaiaha'o Street.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

The Mandarin Restaurant

725 Kapi'olani Blvd., Unit C123

11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays


1/2 Good

The Mandarin Restaurant specializes in northern Chinese cuisine with a Korean twist, a spicier and bolder style of cooking that is not for your lemon-chicken or sweet-and-sour crowd — no, no. My father would have said, "That'll put hair on your chest" — his ultimate compliment any time he encountered courageous flavoring.

The source of the heat at the Mandarin is the addition of fresh, hot red chili strips. Gotta give them extra points on this, because way too many places use those tired old, dried red pepper flakes.

Hot peppers, although too fiery for many, do display subtle taste differences to the educated palate. I'll explain: Flavors are perceived on our tongues in a given location and in varying degrees of strength. If you were to "map" your tongue, you would be able to see that sour, salty, bitter, sweet and hot all have their own special dominant places. Hot peppers and the flavor they impart inspire taste sensations in varying areas within the "hot" region. That's why all hot foods don't taste the same, or all sweet, salty or bitter foods: The flavoring elements stimulate different areas.

But back to The Mandarin: We began with an order of potstickers ($4.95 for six), the crescent-shaped noodle pillows stuffed with a mixture of ground meat and minced vegetables. They are prepared by frying one side until lightly browned, then adding water or stock, and steaming. They are subtle, chewy and meaty snacks.

The green-onion pancake ($4.50) is another Chinese comfort food that we enjoy. It's a hot and crunchy pancake with the sweet spring-onion taste. Once again, the flavors are mild — spicy foods come later in the meal.

The garlic prawns ($9.50) and the braised eggplant and pork ($6.50) are very good. The garlic prawns are batter-coated, fried and then tossed with lots of garlic and those fresh red-hot chili peppers. The eggplant dish was a very nice rendition: long cuts of chewy-roasted eggplant with minced pork, garlic, chili, soy sauce and perhaps sesame with a touch of sugar. The braised garlic fish ($9.95) is made with sole, a meltingly soft variety of fish. All three of these dishes make it worthwhile to search for this little storefront on the first floor of an office/condo complex off Kapi'olani Boulevard on Cooke Street.

An unusually flavorful condiment on every table is ground roasted red chili powder that has both dried vinegar and a whisper of sugar in it. Before long, we were sprinkling this on everything in sight. It helped perk up some of the blander selections.

The Mandarin is a comfortable place, especially for a group of people who want to sit at the single large round table and eat family-style. You can't beat the benefit to conversation such a table provides. If I'm with a group, I will always ask for a round table at restaurants, so I can shmooze with my friends and watch their facial expressions when they taste their dishes. Often, that'll tell me more about the food than anything they can say.

In a family-style setting, you can spin food around to someone across from you with the aid of a lazy Susan.

I was able to speak with chef-owner James Liu and his friendly wife, Hung, who runs the front of the house. Liu said they've been at this location for 12 years (and for 17 years before that in another location), and I could tell he takes pride in his cooking and his establishment. The Mandarin's food, interestingly enough, has Korean overtones, and I wondered why. Liu explained that he was born in China and reared in Korea.

The service is good here, and there's plenty of parking in the evening along Cooke Street. If you enjoy spicy, you'll love The Mandarin. It's a BYOB place, so get something that's good with spicy food — sake, beer, a dry riesling or a bit of bubbly.

Reach Matthew Gray at mgray@honoluluadvertiser.com.