I have a confession to make. It may shock you, but it’s time to come clean. I used to be a vegetarian. For nearly 15 years, no meat or fish passed my lips. You may wonder how I ever came to be such a foodie, but I think, unusually for a vegetarian, I always had foodie tendencies – but it is only since I saw the light and started eating meat again just over 4 years ago that I have really been able to indulge myself, and I’ve certainly not looked back.
During what I now fondly refer to as ‘the veggie years’, I never really felt I was missing out. I still ate out a lot, and most of my favourite cuisines at the time (Indian, Italian and British increasingly so) catered pretty well for a vegetarian diet. The one cuisine that I avoided, however, was always Chinese. Most Chinese restaurants have a very limited vegetarian offering, and what they do offer never appealed in the slightest – beanshoots and water chestnuts are amongst my least favourite foods, so it was never going to work.
You may wonder where I’m going with this, but bear with me. The result of all of the above is that I never really acquired a taste or an appetite for Chinese food, and it’s only in the past year or so that I’ve really started to enjoy it. Ironically, what is now my favourite place for Chinese food, the Mandarin in Bournemouth, is the oldest Chinese restaurant in the town (I believe it’s been there for over 40 years) so I really have been missing out for a long time.
We decided to eat at the Mandarin on Friday night. It’s in the centre of Bournemouth in amongst most of the popular restaurants and bars, and is pretty much always packed on a Friday and Saturday night. We arrived fairly late, not having booked, but after a brief wait in the bar where we had a glass of wine and looked at the menus, we were able to get a table.
Still not being a total connoisseur of Chinese food, I tend to like to go with one of the set ‘banquet’ menus, as it gives an opportunity to try a range of different dishes without having to go through what is an almost excessively extensive menu. We’d tried and enjoyed two of the menus in the Mandarin before, but had preferred the starters from one and the mains from another, so we decided to combine the two, which was no problem with the staff. For £24 per head, we enjoyed a selection of starters, plus what probably amounted to nearly half of a crispy duck, four different mains, rice and a vegetable dish – which is really excellent value compared with selecting your own mix of dishes.
Our starter comprised sesame prawn toast, satay beef with peanut sauce, crispy seaweed, spare ribs and smoked chicken. The smoked chicken is a particular favourite with me, in a very light battered coating. All of the meat was tender and tasty, the spare ribs in particular had only a small amount of fat on them compared with a decent amount of meat, and all of the sauces and marinades were delicious. The food was presented really nicely as well, and you can tell from the way it is served that all of the staff really take a pride in what they are producing and serving.
Crispy duck has always been a favourite of mine, going right back to the days before I turned vegetarian, and despite my general apathy towards Chinese food in the intervening years, it was actually one of the very few meat dishes that I felt I was missing out on during my years as a vegetarian. What is served at the Mandarin is one of the best I have ever had, with an extremely generous portion of meat, with plenty of crispiness, but no inedibly chewy pieces and no bones on the plate. The cucumber and spring onions are always freshly chopped and never seem to have been hanging around, and similarly the pancakes are always hot, dry and freshly prepared. The whole lot comes with a beautifully rich, sticky plum sauce.
At this point it’s probably appropriate to mention my one very slight complaint with the Mandarin. The service, although always very friendly and attentive, can sometimes be a bit irregular. With a relaxed evening meal, we never have any problem with waiting for a while between courses, but it does seem sometimes that parts of the same course are brought out with a significant gap in between. On this occasion, our pancakes, salad and sauce were brought to the table, but it was a good ten minutes before the duck then arrived. This didn’t present a major issue on this occasion, but something similar happened before and we waited so long that in the end they took the pancakes away and brought us fresh ones a bit later. Not a major problem, and on that occasion despite not complaining we were offered an extra drink on the house, but if you’re in a rush it could be an issue, and in general it’s nice to have all your food brought out together!
Next up was our selection of mains, which consisted of sizzling (and it certainly was!) fillet of beef with ginger and spring onion, sweet and sour prawns Cantonese style, pork in yellow bean sauce, chicken with black bean and garlic sauce, a mixed vegetable ‘hot pot’ and the special fried rice. I’m not a huge rice fan, but this went down well even with me: light, fluffy and with a liberal helping of chicken, prawns and pork mixed in. My two favourites from the main dishes were the pork, whose sauce was one of the most deliciously unusual things I’ve tasted, with a fragrant, fruity taste that complements the meat (which melted in the mouth and didn’t have an ounce of fat on it) perfectly, and the prawns, which came in more of the light, crispy batter that I enjoyed on the smoked chicken started. Even with the sauce on them, the batter remained crispy, and the prawns themselves were big, juicy and delicious.
I have no idea what the dessert menu is like in the Mandarin, because after a three course banquet where everything is so delicious that it can’t be left, I am normally ready to roll home! We did, however, have a nice bottle of crisp, dry, Sauvignon blanc to accompany our meal, which came in at around £18.
The Mandarin is sumptuously and authentically furnished, pretty much in the way you would expect a Chinese restaurant of this quality to be. It’s always busy until very late in the evening (a plus for us as we like to eat late and can all too often find ourselves the only diners left in a restaurant!) We’ve only ever visited on a Saturday night before, so we were unaware until we saw the band setting up that Friday night is ‘late night Asian jazz’ night. On the flyers that we subsequently noticed on the tables, it said that this was from 11 p.m. but it actually started around 10 p.m. Our table was very close to where the band was to be playing, so we were a little concerned that it could be too loud and intrusive once they began playing. I’m all for live music in restaurants, but only if (a) it’s at a level that makes it more background than a main feature or (b) I’ve gone there specifically to watch/listen to it. Fortunately, it wasn’t overly loud, but we did feel it was all a bit pointless. The singer/guitarist in particular was actually very good, but there was a total lack of engagement between the band and the diners (apart from us as we were making an effort to listen as much as possible and clap after each song, but the fact that the rest of the diners seemed to be doing their best to ignore the band made the whole thing rather awkward). Indeed, the drummer and bass player looked totally bored throughout. I can’t imagine that anyone’s decision to eat there on Friday night would be influenced either way by the band being there or not, and really, having live music didn’t add anything that wouldn’t have been achieved by sticking a CD on. All a bit of a shame, really – and also, we didn’t notice anything very Asian about the jazz that was being played, which was all very standard.
We’ve never had a bad meal at the Mandarin. Minor issues with service and the slightly odd atmosphere with the unnecessary live band certainly wouldn’t even come close to cancelling out how good the food is, so all in all it’s a great place for a meal at the weekend.
Food: ***** Service: *** Ambience: ***
The Mandarin, 196-198 Old Christchurch Road, Bournemouth BH1 1PD