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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 17, 2006

Mandalay an elegant setting for Chinese dining

By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Downtown's new Mandalay restaurant has floor and balcony seating.

Photos by DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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1055 Alakea St., downtown


Hours: 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily; dim sum served 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Takeout counter Mondays-Fridays 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.

Details: Full bar. Metered street parking; Alii Place parking garage next door. Reservations recommended, especially for weekend dim sum. Casual dress. AmEx, DC, Disc, JCB, MC, V.

Overview: Linda and Larry Chan of the old Eastern Garden do dim sum and more Hong Kong delights in an elegant setting.

Price: $2.25-$5.95 dim sum; $8.50-$16 lunch menu; $8.95-$17.95 appetizers; $8.50-$38 entrees; takeout plate lunch $4.50-$6.95.

Recommended: Baked barbecue-pork buns; Chiu-Chow dumplings; pan-fried shrimp and chive dumplings; pan-fried bean-curd rolls with shrimp; drunken clams in wine sauce; stir-fried shrimp Szechuan-style; spicy beef with tangerine peel; Foo Chow-style seafood fried rice; mango pudding, almond tofu.

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Mandalay entrees include, clockwise from top: sizzling chicken with garlic, crab with black-bean sauce and drunken clams (the sauce is made with wine).

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In a bold move, Larry and Linda Chan sank $1.5 million into renovating downtown's old Yong Sing site to open the new Mandalay.

The result is O'ahu's most elegantly modern Chinese restaurant. Walls blush the faintest of peach colors, their warmth accentuated by complementary lighting. A balcony dining area gazes down on a frequently busy scene downstairs. Thoughtful design elements include niches that showcase fancy vases and ornamental flower displays, along with sliding doors that can shut off three rooms for private parties on the ground floor.

The husband-and-wife team had always wanted to open an upscale Chinese restaurant, and went for it after closing their last Eastern Garden location (there once were four of them), in Westridge, a year ago.

"We ran Eastern Garden for 15 years," said Larry. "We made mistakes along the way like anybody else, so we tried to correct all the problems and make a nice restaurant." The Mandalay is definitely nice, but it shows glimpses of greatness, which makes the dips of lackluster food and service all the more frustrating. On my visits, service fluctuated from extreme attentiveness to complete neglect.

But one evening exceeded all dining expectations. The efficiency and graciousness of the wait staff that night had me feeling I was in good hands. And when the food arrived steadily and smoothly from the kitchen guided by executive chef Shea King Kan, Chinese fine dining rose to a new level on this island.

Cold drunken clams ($12.95) garnished with minced garlic, ginger and chives in a dark wine sauce were intoxicatingly refreshing. Shrimp simply stir-fried with slices of fresh red chilies Szechuan-style ($15.99) were wonderful for those who hate peeling shells, since they had none. Spicy beef sauteed with tangerine peel ($9.50) didn't have much heat, but was zesty with citrus and only tinged with sweetness, unlike the common syrupy orange beef.

Desserts echoed the restaurant's disparities. Mango pudding ($2.50) had the intense flavor of real, ripe fruit. I usually avoid almond tofu with fruit cocktail ($3), since it often has a rubbery Jell-O consistency, but the Mandalay's version had the texture of a delicate custard. Steamed sweetened egg white with milk ($2.50), on the other hand, reminded me of sweet boiled eggs.

Chefs John Liang and King Kan have more than 35 years experience working in Hong Kong and locally at Legend Seafood and Kirin. With more than 15 cooks in the kitchen during busy periods, the Mandalay can produce an extensive menu of about 50 dim-sum items and more than 100 appetizer and entrée selections. On my visits, though, some dishes, such as papaya tapioca ($3), were unavailable.

When it comes to dim sum, I flunked the dumpling test — twice. Passing the driver's license test is easier than filling out the dim-sum order sheet.

Diners have to pick from numbered boxes and a blank option that looked suspiciously like a trick question on a slip of paper resembling a mini SAT exam. I would've preferred to rely on the large menu of 30 glossy photos with English text.

The Mandalay has done away with the usual roving carts and delivers dishes to the table from the kitchen.

Overall, the dim sum was good, but the rice-flour wrappers of some of the steamed dumplings were too weak for their bulky contents. Peanuts mixed with bits of chive and pork peeked out from an order of delicious Chiu Chow-style dumplings (three for $2.85) that hadn't been sealed tightly.

Occasionally, orders arrived cold. A plate of deep-fried taro puffs (three for $2.85), still crunchy and wispy light on the outside with a creamy, soft interior, would have tasted a lot better served hot.

Baked barbecue-pork buns (three for $2.85), which seemed to land directly from the oven to our table, revealed the kitchen's capabilities under dim-sum chef Liang. Perfectly browned tops lacquered with a sweet glaze gave way to warm, tender dough and a richly flavored meat filling.

Next door to the main restaurant is a takeout counter offering plate-lunch choices.

The Chans apparently thought of everything in perfecting their Chinese culinary masterpiece. And while the devil is always in the details (such as teapots that are almost impossible to pour without spilling tea onto beautiful glossy yellow tablecloths), I've seen just how brightly the Mandalay can shine.

Reach Helen Wu at hwu@honoluluadvertiser.com. Ratings reflect the reviewer's reaction to food, service and ambience in relation to price. Menu listings and prices are subject to change. Reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. The Advertiser pays for meals.