By Dale F. Bentson
Let's not argue. Some of you might say Mandarin Roots isn't really a true Chinese restaurant, it's an Asian-Californian-fusion restaurant. It is, but the menu and presentation fall predominantly on the west side of the International Date Line.
The El Camino Real space was Hunan Garden for 15 years until the owner, Simon Yuan, decided to turn the business over to his son, Jarvis. The restaurant reopened May 31; Jarvis Yuan has remodeled it, semi-enclosing the patio with a new awning and adding elements that make seating a pleasurable indoor-outdoor affair. Outside, there is a vine-covered brick wall, flowing curtains, flowering plants, comfortable chairs and booths, plus strings of festive party lights overhead.
Inside, there is new paint and carpeting, tables, chairs, and a banquette as well as high-definition TVs in the cozy bar. It's a complete makeover -- fresh, contemporary and inviting. Equally inviting is the happy hour Monday through Friday, from 5 to 7 p.m. during which eight delicious items as well as beer, wine, and well cocktails are attractively priced at $5 each.
Normally, I don't sing the praises of happy hour, but the appetizers were so tasty and the portions so generous, I would be remiss to not point it out. All happy hour items are also on the regular menu. The San Tung chicken wings ($8) -- lightly battered, crispy, meaty wings dressed with a garlic-hoisin glaze, scallions and "garlic candy" -- were about the tastiest wings I've had. The garlic candy is made from paper-thin slices of garlic, blanched twice and cooked to translucency in a sweet syrup.
Another happy hour selection was a pork belly quesadilla ($8) -- scallion flatbread that was wrapped around braised pork belly, mozzarella and gouda cheese, with a flavorful mango-kimchee emulsion.
There were also pork potstickers ($9) -- fresh and piping hot -- as well as salt-and-pepper calamari ($9) that was crisp and light. Bahn mi sliders ($9) featured Painted Hills natural beef, smoked gouda and gruyere, Laotian chili aioli and picked root vegetables, served on tiny steamed buns.
The Yuan family didn't want Jarvis to go into the restaurant business. Growing up, he never worked at Hunan Garden. But it was in his blood, so he attended the California Culinary Academy, then worked in Asian restaurants both locally and in Southern California. Two years ago he moved back home and refined his style under executive chef Kenny So at Santana Row's Sino restaurant.
Ron Chu is the chef de cuisine at Mandarin Roots. Chu and Yuan met at culinary school. Rounding out the team is General Manager John Ma, who came over from the Straits Cafe restaurant chain. The menu, though, was Yuan's vision. "Elevated street food," he calls it.
Regular menu items include eye-pleasing and delicious honeyed walnut prawns ($13). The large prawns were capped with candied walnuts and kumquats under a gentle honey mustard glaze. It had a great flavor curve: crunchy, salty and then sweet.
The corn fritters ($7) vaguely resembled a honeycomb with clotted roasted corn and roasted seaweed, accompanied by sweet chili sauce. Fun finger food. Peking duck spring rolls ($9) have five variations using cucumber, scallion, tempura asparagus, pickled shimeji mushrooms and pomegranate hoisin.
Main plates ran the gamut from fish to fowl. Sweet-and-sour pork ($14) is the typical crispy battered pork, onions and bell peppers. What distinguished the dish were tiny balls of honeydew and cantaloupe melons that accentuated the pork flavor.
The star dish was the Peking duck ($29). Golden-brown and crisp yet succulent, the deeply flavored duck had been split, sliced and arranged on a platter for easy handling. The duck was served with steamed lotus buns, scallions, cucumbers, kumquat preserves and pomegranate hoisin.
Diver scallops and prawns ($18) was the least satisfying dish, with toy box squash, cauliflower florets, beech mushrooms, baby carrots and golden chives. Pretty presentation but I counted only two scallops and three prawns. The crispy flounder fillets ($16) were flavorful, crisp and plentiful, but a tad too salty.
The Yu Sang eggplant ($9) made an excellent side dish, both spicy and garlicky.
Desserts were worthwhile. The pineapple layer cake ($8) featured pineapple pastry cream, a vanilla wafer cookie, charred pineapple and rock sugar caramel with just the right amount of sweetness. Also enjoyable was "coffee and waffles" ($8) with coffee ice cream, vanilla bean, cinnamon strudel and mint creme fraiche. The creme fraiche should have been omitted, though.
Mandarin Roots also serves specialty cocktails (all $10), which range from the classic Manhattan to a "Pink Paradise" with coconut rum, amaretto, orange and cranberry juice. The wine list was meager but offered a decent enough selection. The restaurant also has about a dozen beers, draft and bottled.
Service was very attentive and generally knowledgeable, although on one visit the waiter made repeated trips to the kitchen for answers (better than guessing though).
Fusion or not, Mandarin enough or not, the food was decidedly good, the ambiance contemporary and Mandarin Roots is a good choice for larger parties as well as more intimate dining.
3345 El Camino Real
Lunch: Monday-Friday 11 a.m.- 2 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday-Wednesday, 5-9 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: lot and valet rear lot
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: patio
Private parties: yes
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent