Peter Liu is bullish on the Year of the Tiger. His sumptuous new Chinese restaurant, O Mandarin, has been softly open in Hicksville since the last week of 2021 but by the start of the Lunar New Year this week, the kitchen will be fully staffed, Peking duck on the menu and the liquor license on its way — hopefully by the end of the 15-day celebration.
Liu’s first O Mandarin opened in Hartsdale in 2017 and received the kind of acclaim rare for a Chinese restaurant: Listed in the current Michelin Guide, its chef, Eric Gao, was a James Beard best-chef semifinalist in 2020. But Liu is upping the ante even higher in Hicksville, with a free-standing 7,000-square-foot building that used to be Mio Posto. Liu bought the property two years ago and has painstakingly transformed it into an opulent homage to Chinese culture. Much of the material comes straight from China — reclaimed bricks and tiles, a delicate replica of a Tang-dynasty temple that mimics its own reflection in water, an antique wash stand and, just beyond the front doors (rescued from a country house in Shanxi), two 100-year-old lion-topped carved stone hitching posts.
"It took a lot of time and a lot of money and a lot of thought," Liu said. "A lot of this stuff is from my personal collection. I wanted to present not just the food but the culture of China. The interior is as much about education as it is about ambience."
The food is as grand as the décor. The recipes are authentic, but the presentations are designed to impress: a ziggurat of wok-braised shrimp crowned with microgreens, pan-fried rectangular dumplings stacked like Lincoln Logs, a tremblingly tender whole pork shank cradled in a stop-sign-sized lotus leaf. With most starters and dim sum between $11 and $14 and most entrees between $20 and $28, prices are a little higher than at most Chinese restaurants on LI. And why, Liu asks, shouldn’t they be?
"You get what you pay for," he said. "We buy the best meat, fish and produce. We are serious about what we do. Chinese food, Chinese culture has a 5,000 year history. I believe that my generation has the responsibility for transforming American people’s perceptions of what Chinese cooking is about."
The very name of the restaurant, O Mandarin, declares its independence from what Liu sees as the American norm. "The first immigrants from China to the United States were Cantonese, from southern China," he explained. Their cuisine — heavy on the seafood, delicately seasoned — formed the basis of what most Americans consider "Chinese food."
But "O Mandarin" stands for "original Mandarin," a term that Liu uses to connote the rest of China. "Our menu draws on the traditions of the northern and western regions," he said. Beijing, Shanghai (where Liu was raised), Sichuan, Xian, Shaanxi, Shandong (whence comes Gao) — "these cuisines have more meat, more spice."
In truth "Mandarin" is replete with meaning. It signifies the cuisine of the Chinese capital, where imperial chefs would raid the whole country’s repertoire to provide the very best meals to the emperor. (Peking duck, which bears the capital’s old name, is the most famous of the Mandarin dishes.) And, of course, Mandarin is the official language of China, whereas Cantonese is spoken mostly in Guangdong, the country’s most populous province which Europeans originally called "Canton."
"Fit for an emperor" would certainly describe Chong Qing chili chicken, a tangle of fried chunks, Chinese celery, cilantro, sesame seeds and lots of hot peppers that somehow manages to be fiery and delicate at the same time. Another of the "chef’s signatures," succulent jasmine-tea-smoked duck reposes, legs crossed, with a garnish of ruffled shrimp chips.
When it comes to dessert, O Mandarin does not take the common route of green-tea ice cream and fortune cookies. There is an annex off the kitchen, visible to diners, where a chef specializes in dumplings and pastry. If you have room at the end of your meal, order the "Emperor’s Eight Treasures" comprising eight sweets whose recipes date back to the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) and are presented in a black-and-red lacquered box.
You’ll find six whole fish preparations on the regular menu and ordering one during the two-week Chinese New Year celebration is de rigueur. "The word for fish, ‘yu,’ sounds like the word for abundance," Liu said. "And so it is considered good luck to eat a whole fish for New Year’s."
Peter Liu appreciates the luck but he is confident that Long Island is ready for O Mandarin. "Over the past five years I have had so much success with the residents of Westchester," he said. "The Long Island market is bigger and denser. There are people here who travel all over the world and who know what Chinese food is supposed to taste like. I think Long Island is ready for O Mandarin."
O Mandarin is at 600 W. Old Country Rd., Hicksville, 516-622-6666, omandarin.com
Celebrating Lunar New Year at Long Island resturants
Many Chinese restaurants have curtailed their festivities to celebrate the Year of the Tiger (as they did for the Year of the Ox, which ends on Jan. 13) but here are five that are offering banquets. Reservations are essential.
Cheng Du (947-949 Hempstead Tpke., Franklin Square): This comfortable Sichuan restaurant is offering two “banquet” menus for groups of two, a real rarity. Both start with West Lake beef-seafood-tofu soup and include a dim sum platter, beef and tripe in chili oil, dry-pepper chicken and Chinese greens. The $88 menu features fish fillet and crispy duck; the $108 menu, Hong Kong-style lobster, spicy grilled whole fish and half a Peking duck. More info: 516-358-1603, chengduny.com
Delicis Legend (1230 Broadway, Hewlett): Since August, Delicis Legend has been introducing authentic Sichuan food to the Five Towns and surrounding environs. The New Year’s banquet, $580, serves 10 to 12 people and includes steamed sticky rice in the shape of a fish, bone-in spicy chicken salad, lobster (spicy, or ginger-scallion), mixed vegetables “paradise,” steamed live shrimp, steamed whole sea bass, egg tofu with minced pork, pea shoots with garlic, stir-fried Chinese bacon with garlic shoots and, for dessert, eight-treasure sticky rice and fruit. More info: 516-299-8080, delicislegend.com
New Fu Run (50 Middle Neck Rd., Great Neck): Great Neck’s destination for Dongbei (Manchurian) cuisine is offering menus for 4 to 6 people ($138), 8 to 10 ($228) and 12 to 15 ($398). Among the featured dishes are lamb chops with cumin, country-style green bean sheet jelly, fried jumbo shrimp, smoked chicken, steamed whole fish with scallions. All meals commence with fresh mushroom and “fat choy” seaweed soup and conclude with sesame balls. More info: 516-708-1888, furunrestaurant.com
O Mandarin (600 W. Old Country Rd., Hicksville): Long Island’s newest Chinese restaurant is offering one menu ($388) for groups of 6 to 8 and two menus ($518 or $888) for groups of 10 to 12. Among the featured dishes from the north and west of China are Chengdu mouthwatering chicken, lotus root and sticky rice, fresh spinach and clams, Peking duck, wild pepper live shrimp and crispy rice, crispy whole fish with sweet-and-sour sauce, steamed live scallops with garlic and vermicelli. All meals conclude with the Emperor’s Eight Treasures dessert tray. More info: 516-622-6666, omandarin.com
The Orient (623 Hicksville Rd., Bethpage): The pan-Chinese Bethpage stalwart is offering a $148 banquet for dine in or takeout; it serves 6 and includes velvet minced chicken-corn soup, steamed pork dumplings and crispy spring rolls plus steak with asparagus and lotus root, jumbo shrimp with walnuts, mango-pineapple pork tenderloin, orange chicken, bacon fried rice and night-market stir-fried noodles. More info: 516-822-1010, theorientbethpage.com