Monday, October 31, 2005

Save This Restaurant*

We walked into Mandarin Kitchen last night at about 6 PM. We walked out around 7:30. During that time, two other sets of customers arrived--for hot pots. Our table, however, was the only one to sample the Shanghainese and Northern Chinese specialties. A confidential source has reported similar sparse crowds. If Mandarin Kitchen cannot thrive because of this fallow patronage, it will be a real loss to our area’s eaters. When the un-interested make their usual banal, no good Chinese food in Chicago statements, the death of Mandarin Kitchen will inadvertently support their no-nothingness. This is a restaurant that does not deserve to die.

Already, I would say it suffered a bit from non-use. The salty vegetable and bean curd, one of my favorite of the cold appetizers, a fine mix of green something and tofu something that melds into a salty, vegetal bomb in the mouth, tasted tired. The thick and chewy Shanghai style round noodles seemed a bit too gloppy. The pond fish in spicy sauce did not taste fishy or off but my palate could tell that it was almost there. With Chinese restaurants you expect your fish to be not even close to this stage. Still, Mandarin Kitchen showed why it should matter to Chicago chowhounds and Chinese food mavens. It provides a menu filled with choices. All the standards of the Shanghai cannon, the soup dumplings and assorted items in chili oil like razor thin tendon, ten or so variations on bean curd, several items in the brown braising sauce almost equal amounts sugar and soy (with a few other ingredients to elevate). It is a rich, hearty food that should go well in Chicago. Perhaps because Shanghai food has not become “in” in Chicago, Mandarin Kitchen has been adding many dishes from Beijing, where the owners actually hail. A lot of this stuff is written only in Chinese but the menu now contains a few items like chicken and potato casserole that is more Northern than Eastern. As if ordering before was easy.

To tempt us towards this new direction, Aidee, the sly and attractive owner of MK grilled us up, on the house, some lamb kebabs coated in spices more Indian than Chinese (it seemed). Do order these when you help save this restaurant. We also ordered the Northern beef stew with crinkly sheets of dry tofu. A great rich dish (again highly desirable for our climate) that was somewhat marred by too much sterno underneath. Once we figured out how to cap the flame, we liked this dish better. More Shanghai was soft tofu cubes in a sweet dressing with plenty of contrast from a Chinese pickle. Our final dish was sautéed eggplant, than in the wonders of Chinese translations, was actually batter fried eggplant slices briefly stir-fried with a double handful of snipped chives. A dish of strong, inter-mixed flavors, salty, sweet and sharp, just another reason to return to the “New” Mandarin Kitchen.

I should add that before any of our dishes arrived; we got a bit of cabbage, slightly fermented and sneaky hot from several dried maroon peppers. We also got bowls of cabbage soup that tasted much like my Mom’s or Manny’s. At the original, Mandarin Kitchen, there was a crispy fried chicken known to eaters as gribenese chicken. Well, this soup would be a fitting match to that dish. The first Mandarin Kitchen did excellent versions of spicy, oily Szechwan style food. It was a shame it closed, but when it closed, there was still Lao Sze Chuan and Spring World doing equally good versions of this food (and subsequently, Sky). If the New Mandarin Kitchen leaves, there is really nothing else like it around. Save this restaurant!

The “New” Mandarin Kitchen
2143 S Archer

*Feature stolen from Time Out Chicago

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