Chinese culinary heritage is incredibly broad, but as a nation we’ve primarily appropriated cuisine from the Szechuan, Hunan, and Cantonese regions, with variations from Hong Kong and Singapore. Then, in true American entrepreneurial style, restaurateurs have adapted those to mainstream American palates. Depending on a region’s demographics, there’s also a parallel nod toward natives who crave unadulterated authenticity. Sometimes, I feel for Chinese restaurants in the U.S. that often try to be all things to all people.
At Ivory Mandarin Bistro, the menu options are dauntingly encyclopedic. Which of the 16 soups tickle your fancy? Will it be the comforting predictability of wonton or a stretch to fish maw? How about the intriguing phoenix and dragon? We opt for hot and sour soup with tofu and bamboo shoots. The broth is dark, the tofu soft and the finish is spicy; the overall effect, however, is one-dimensional.
The same is true of the veggie roll. It is crispy brown on the outside and filled with crunchy vegetables on the inside—and with a dip in duck sauce, exactly what you would expect. I keep hoping for surprise.
I try engaging the servers to find something unusual and authentic. The staff seems totally flummoxed by my request; two different servers offer to get some help since they are “new” — one is a friend of the owner who’s helping out. I’m happy that the servers are Asian and that their English is obviously a second language (that means authenticity, right?), but I wish that I had some natives to coach me and hold my hand. Ultimately, I just give in and order the steamed dumpling appetizer (over the pan-fried) after a recommendation from a more seasoned staffer who swooped in to the rescue.
The six steamed dumplings are essentially like giant ground pork-stuffed wontons.
The excess fluted noodle at the top flaps around as I try valiantly to use my chopsticks. I require my tablemates to do the same. How else do you learn a skill if you don’t practice? My proficiency is somewhere in the “novice plus” range; my companions struggle as I insist that they keep trying. And I encourage you to dive in and practice, practice, practice if you’re not yet a pro. It feels good eating this ancient cuisine with utensils from the other side of the globe that predate the Ming dynasty. It’s the least we can do as Americans to make up for the outrageous stereotypes promulgated by old Charlie Chan movies.
Fork-free eating is a bit easier with the entrees, as the thick sauces and sticky rice enable a scooping-from-the-bowl strategy. I try to sell my table on squid with chives, which, I am assured by my “aiming-to-please” server, displays the authenticity that I always seek (regardless of cuisine). When I fail to convince, Dungeness crab is the compromise. But on this night, the crabs have left the building and we are forced to settle for shrimp and scallops that are obviously not as talented swimmers. They arrive sautéed with vegetables. Everything is coated with copious amounts of mild sticky brown sauce flavored with ginger and scallions. The flavors are fine, but I expect more pop from fresh ginger.
I’m a sucker for duck and the options are numerous. The “half duck with bone deep-fried to a crisp” is served as described. The duck is neatly chopped into manageable pieces and reassembled on a platter to look, well, like a completed half-a-duck puzzle (sans head and feet). The skin is crisp and the meat is tasty but a tiny bit dry. This is a small problem, since there is literally no sauce or any other discernable flavor. But if you’re up for a huge dose of duck, you’ve got it.
The menu offers an impressive noodle and protein matrix that allows diners to mix and match sauces, noodles and meats or seafood in a myriad of combinations. Another page announces a choice of meat (or tofu) with a dizzying sauce array: sweet and sour, garlic, black bean, cashew, kung pao, General Tso, hong sao, kent-tu, Hunan, Szechuan, Mongolian, lobster, ginger. Many dishes display a tiny pepper icon so you may “please specify the level of spiciness: 1 Hot-10 Hot (or no Hot).” So many choices, so little time.
Perhaps that’s why we settle for “I don’t know.” That’s the actual name of dish number zero of Ivory’s specials and the one with the most devotees in the foodie Web chatter. Thin chicken slices are sautéed with snow peas, carrots, baby corn, and celery in tangy Chinese peanut sauce. The dish’s buzz is well earned; it’s the hit of the night. Perhaps it’s deeply rooted in us as kids through peanut butter and Reese’s cups, but this dish strikes a chord that keeps ringing on your palate. You just keep wanting more. At this point, it’s OK to lay down the chopsticks, pick up your fork and chow down.
NEXT WEEK: Della’s After Dark
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