8407 Ramsey Ave., Silver Spring 588-7785 Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; noon to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Prices: Most dinner entrees $6 to $11. Cards: All major credit cards accepted.
The problem with Chinese restaurants, like all other restaurants, is that there are too many ordinary ones and not enough that are memorable. The Mandarins is one of those rare memorable ones.
Open just a few months, this place has everything going for it, including a prime location just across from the Metro station (where Luau Hut used to be), and a remodeled dining room that's very pretty in a spare, understated way, with unusually comfortable seating. But it's memories of the food that will keep you going back.
The Mandarins does the expected Chinese restaurant items unexpectedly well, and there are unusual, intelligently conceived dishes here that you won't find elsewhere. Meats and seafoods are fresh and well handled, and sauces are delicately flavored, minimally thickened and sparingly applied. The portions are generous, the presentation pretty and painstaking, and the prices remarkably low; traditional pork, chicken and vegetable dishes are $6.25.
For appetizers, the spring rolls have been superlative, with crisp wrappers, tasty fillings and no excess oil. There's also a seafood version with a very mild, delicate shrimp-fish filling. The steamed dumplings are exceptional, too, and again there's a gentle seafood variant along with the familiar pork-filled version. Chicken with pine nuts is another excellent, delicate appetizer, in a mild, subtle sauce. A zippier one is sesame vegetables, cold Chinese vegetables in a peppery sauce with the smoky taste of sesame oil. Shrimp tempura (a Japanese dish) is a standout here. Skewered chicken, customarily dry and dull, is remarkably succulent and well flavored.
Among the unusual entrees, brown sugar fish is an exceptional dish (it deserves a more attractive name) in which thick, fresh fish fillets in a delicate egg batter are deep fried and served with a tart sauce made with balsamic vinegar and a touch of sugar.
Pine forest pork is a classy, upgraded version of moo shi pork, in which the filling, minus the usual egg, is enlivened by pine nuts and a mild, meaty sauce, and in which the pancakes are rolled at tableside by the waiter. Omei pork consists of pork strips in orange sauce with Cointreau -- pleasant enough, but too sweet for our taste.
Among the traditional items, kung pao chicken is a refined rendition that goes easy on the salt, hot, garlic and sweet flavors yet keeps everything in beautiful balance. The chicken is impeccably trimmed and -- an unusual touch -- there are crunchy chunks of diced, peeled broccoli stem. Moo shi pork is a top-notch version.
The scallops and shrimp with hot garlic sauce are fresh and tender, and the silky sauce nicely plays each flavor -- hot, garlic, sweet, salt and sesame oil -- against the others. Seafood with crackling rice is exemplary. Crispy duck, with a crackly skin and succulent meat, goes lighter on the anise flavor than most. Finally, one of the best barometers of a Chinese restaurant's quality is the mixed vegetables. At The Mandarins, they're flawless.