The Gossiping Gourmet: This food not for the faint of heart

May 20, 2010|By Elle Harrow and Terry Markowitz
  • Drunken chicken cold appetizer at Mandarin Restaurant in Fountain Valley.
Drunken chicken cold appetizer at Mandarin Restaurant…

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.

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