mandarin house in overland photos by wesley law

Review: Mandarin House in Overland

Mandarin House is a Chinese restaurant for everyone: The 30-year-old Overland restaurant serves the familiar Americanized classics – General Tso’s Chicken, Crab Rangoon – but also masterfully prepares the dishes preferred by the Chinese community – white cucumber pork, spiced black bean beef. The more familiar American-style dishes are denoted on the huge, 11-page menu in green, the traditional Chinese recipes in black text.

Both approaches offer much to try. Start with the appetizer section’s Drunken Chicken, marinated in rice wine and poached, or the barbecue pork appetizers, glazed in a sweet sauce and delicately smoked. Served sliced and chilled, both were clean, simple and refined in flavor. Fried potstickers, with bright scallion and freshly ground pork wrapped in handmade dough with lightly crisped edges, were so well-executed, they conjured childhood memories of Sunday afternoon dumpling feasts in the home of a Taiwanese friend.

Among the traditional dishes worth the adventure is the intriguing vegetarian duck; we were satisfyingly pleased with the results. The chef skillfully wrapped layers of tofu as thin as puff pastry around shiitake mushrooms, basted the dish with a brown stock that made it glisten like a roasted duck, and then served it sliced and chilled as a starter. This dish even convinced Dan, a carnivore to the core, that tofu was a respectable food; it would’ve been amazing if coupled with a glass of Burgundy.

Which brings us to the one criticism of the restaurant as a whole: The food is so good and well-prepared that the absence of a wine menu, even a small list, left us wistfully dreaming of enticing pairings and thirsty for something more than tea or bottled beer.

The traditional soups and hot pots are worth exploring. Cantonese Crab Soup warmed the soul on a rainy night, and Mandarin’s use of fish maw and shiitake mushrooms dressed this dish with layers of complexity. In addition, the sea cucumber and calamari stir-fry base for the Seafood-Tofu Hot Pot created a rich, inviting broth, but the chef should be more careful to remove older, darker pieces of squid as they were tough and tasted of old shellfish.

firecracker green beans // photo by wesley law

The Salt and Pepper Calamari was a hit with the whole table. The squid tubes are sliced open and scored diagonally before being cut into strips, giving them a delicate texture and unique appearance as they spiral when cooked. Their light breading and subtle seasoning made them borderline addictive.

Firecracker Green Beans were soul-satisfyingly crispy. Cooked with Szechuan vegetable spice and ground pork, they disappeared almost before they rounded the table. And the tempura-battered, braised eggplant, dressed with a honey sauce and mild Thai chiles, was sweet relief to the palate when eating the Yun Nan Spicy Chicken. Not an entrée for the faint-hearted, this sadistic dish was painfully delicious, just as the menu and the waitress plainly warned us. The chef cleaved chicken thighs and legs into bite-sized morsels before braising them with daikon in delectably hot, chile sauce.

The beef shortribs, tender and sauced with a reduction of braising liquid and briefly sautéed onions, were a hit with our children. Cut on the bias, the short-rib bones were a unique oval shape and very delicate. The connective meat was then pounded thin, breaded and braised. The kids might have loved it as much for the theatrical presentation, poured tableside onto a piping-hot metal platter, which creates plenty of satisfying sizzle and steam.

Though it’s described only in Chinese, don’t overlook the Chef’s Specials page (translated by the waiters upon request). Our favorite was braised pork with taro root. Lightly floured and seasoned with Chinese five spice, the pork was browned and then baked with chunks of taro, a slightly starchy vegetable that closely resembles a potato. The taro sensuously absorbed the pork drippings, creating true Chinese comfort food.

Mandarin House bridges traditional Chinese cooking with American showmanship. Alabaster lions and a koi pond welcome each guest to the spacious dining room; attentive service and a relaxed atmosphere make you feel at home. Noted by Food and Wine Magazine in 2000 as a top Midwest restaurant, Mandarin House is a truly delicious experience.

WHERE: Mandarin House, 9150 Overland Plaza, Overland, 314.427.8070
WHEN: Lunch and dinner: Sun. to Thu. – 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fri. and Sat. – 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Dim sum: Sat. and Sun. – 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
DINE-IN-ABILITY: With a dining room that seats over 400 and a décor complete with a koi pond, you’ll want to dine in (although carryout is available). Come early to dim sum; it fills by 11:30.
FEAST OR FAMINE: An 11-page menu featuring both American-style and traditional dishes ensures that there’s truly something for everyone.
TRY IT, YOU’LL LIKE IT: Salt and Pepper Calamari, potstickers, Firecracker Green Beans