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Address: Basement, 5 Fort Lane, Citymandarinrestaurant.co.nzPhone: (09) 300 7551Cuisine: Modern ChineseRating: 8/10
Keep your eyes down and you can't miss it. Tucked away underground in Imperial Lane you'll find the new Mandarin Dumpling & Bar, cleverly created out of a basement.
From the laneway the view is of a subterranean space set out with a meticulously straight row of tables, each with a flickering tea light and vases of cascading white orchids spilling their whiteness into the dimly lit space. Once inside you're cocooned in a dining room that could be anywhere in the world.
Capitalising on the popularity of dumplings right now is a smart move, but the menu extends far beyond these trendy little parcels to include dishes that draw on regional Chinese cuisine, and how refreshing it was to see more than just Cantonese flavours being represented. Cumin and lemongrass, dates and yoghurt are here, in deference to the influence of some of China's border countries.
Dumplings are on offer, of course they are, but you're best warned not to expect tissue-thin skins favoured by most of the dumpling houses in this city.
These follow the tradition of northern China where fillings are encased in a more robust, thicker skin, shiny and slightly tacky if they're steamed, slightly chewy if pan-fried.
We took one bamboo basket of each. They're a bargain at $6 for four when you take in the surrounds - elegant lacquered furniture, soft lighting, gleaming open kitchen - fresh ingredients and engaging wait staff. No sticky tables, unsmiling service and glaring fluoro lighting here. Steamed black dumplings are stained with squid ink and contain a sweet filling of prawn and crab. They are deeply impressive with the integrity of the prawn, which is taut and tasty.
Vegetarian parcels are bright green and stuffed with a light filling of egg, cabbage and vermicelli and beef and onion are deep and rich in flavour with their beetroot juice skins.
Compared to the dumplings I've sampled (and there have been many!), these were fresh and innovative but I'm hesitant to agree that thicker skins are necessarily superior.
To find the better hidden gems in the Mandarin menu, turn your attention to the salads and other plates on offer. A simple combination of celery, prawns and boiled peanuts tingles on the tongue with a szechuan pepper-laced dressing while the cooling Buddha salad slams the palate with pleasant acidity then sweet-talks it back with pieces of toffee-like dates.
These were brilliant dishes and they were the perfect accompaniments for the heavier hitting plates of tofu and pork hock.
Not being a huge fan of tofu, I couldn't praise the Mandarin kitchen enough for their house-made version. Picking up each golden cube with my chopsticks and taking bites gave rise to the most luscious experience as the crisp outer surface crackled in my mouth then gave way to a creamy, baked custard-like centre, all of it slick with a dark, rich fish and soy sauce. Soft red capsicum and crunchy fresh daikon added to the wild party of layers and complexity.
Funny how much expectation plays a part in a dining experience.
When I'd ordered the pork hock, described as slow-cooked and served with iceberg lettuce, cucumber and crushed peanuts, I never expected it would take the form it did; pork meat taken off the bone combined with slippery mushrooms in an overly heavy sauce. The idea was to wrap spoonfuls of pork stew in the lettuce leaves, along with the cucumber and crushed peanut garnish, but this was ungainly and the sauce overpowered the flavour of the pork, so disappointment reigned.
A simple dish of sliced Taiwanese pork sausage was the opposite and a sign that Mandarin is not afraid to keep it simple and let the key ingredients shine.
Using sausages sourced from a local Taiwanese butcher who specialises in making these authentically dry, sweet delicacies, it was topped with kombu and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Delicious.
It is easy to see how an eatery like Mandarin is going to fit in snugly in this little downtown lane; it makes for a quick lunchtime spot in gorgeous surrounds but also serves well for an intimate evening experience.
It felt secretive and cosy, and after eating at Mandarin, it is hard to imagine going back to one of the cheap and cheerful dumpling houses. Mandarin is just too cute to ignore.
From the menu: Dumplings: vegetarian $6, beef & onion $6, prawn $8, pork $6; Buddha salad $12; Prawn salad $12; Pork hock $24; tofu $18; Taiwanese pork sausage $14; Moon cake $12; Icecream $12Drinks: Fully licensed
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