8407 Ramsey Ave.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Most dinner entrees $7 to $10
Credit Cards: American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa.
When we have fond memories of an especially good restaurant, we look forward to going back and re-experiencing the dishes we liked best. Sometimes the renewed acquaintance works out, and we find ourselves falling in love all over again with a place we hadn't seen in a few years. But sometimes we find that you can't go home again -- not even to restaurants.
That's what happened recently with The Mandarins. When we first reviewed this place a couple of years ago, it was an extraordinarily good Chinese restaurant, noteworthy for its unusual dishes and the high overall quality of its cooking. Sauces, for example, were beautifully flavored and sparingly applied, and the seafood was impeccably fresh.
Sadly, the luster of The Mandarins has dimmed considerably. With careful ordering and a little luck, you can still eat reasonably well here, but it's clear that today's Mandarins is a shadow of its former self. It's still a good-looking restaurant, done in monochromatic battleship gray, simple but pretty, with very comfortable seating.
Perhaps the best appetizer is steak on a stick, tender, nicely marinated beef, mildly flavored, with scallion and a good, meaty sauce. Three generous skewers for $2.25 make it a good buy. The cold sesame vegetables are good too, light, lively broccoli, snow peas and water chestnuts in a zippy sauce with pepper and sesame oil. Chicken with pine nuts is decent enough, but suffers from a shortage of pine nuts and sesame oil.
Beyond that, tread warily among the appetizers. The steamed dumplings have sticky wrappers and underflavored fillings, and the spring rolls -- both the regular and seafood varieties -- are unusually oily.
A good entree is Mandarin lamb, a generous portion of tender, well-trimmed lamb, stir fried with scallions and just a bit of meaty sauce -- a nice, simple, flavorful dish. Pine forest pork, a variant of moo shi pork, is another good choice. This pancake-wrapped dish has succulent meat and strips of carrot and scallion, plus pine nuts and mushrooms, but without the egg usually found in moo shi pork. The Buddhist vegetables are decent enough too, lively and crisp, but swamped in too much sauce.
Brown sugar fish is fish fillets fried in a crisp but over-thick batter (the batter is undercooked in the thicker areas), served with a very good sugar-vinegar sauce that's nicely tart. Gold coin steak is chewy and somewhat fatty flank steak in a nicely crisp batter, served with a thick, sweet sauce that's heavy on the garlic. At $10.95, one would expect a classier cut of meat.
We found the sizzling shrimp and scallops a bust. The shellfish were big and plump but a little past their prime, and the heavily cornstarched sauce had the consistency of a gel. At $12.95, a disappointing dish.
Another disappointment was the deep forest mushroom, described on the menu as "shitake, oyster and white mushrooms with tea braised pressed tofu." What we got tasted like mainly ordinary commercial mushrooms, with perhaps a sliver here and there of shitakes along with little strips of hard, rubbery tofu. At $8.95, certainly no bargain.