18 Cottage Row, Glen Cove
SERVICE: Very good
AMBIENCE: Dates and parties
ESSENTIALS: Open Monday to Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday noon to 10 p.m. Weekend reservations recommended. Major credit cards accepted. Steps at main entrance; street-level entry next to stairway.
Sweet Mandarin announces itself with the clanging of hibachi spatulas and forks, the serenity of sushi and the spark of revived Chinese cuisine.
Diners may remember that Asian fare has reigned at this address since the Ming dynasty, or at least from the Sichuan heyday of Golden Woks. Cove Star, East Wok and Eva’s Lantern are among those where the fortune cookie crumbled.
But if you’re looking for traces of history, an archaeological dig will be necessary.
Sweet Mandarin rises very new, very polished and often very good, built with contemporary style and not a pagoda in sight. It’s subtitled “Asian Bistro & Hibachi & Sushi Bar.”
No need to ask the opinions of wide-eyed children and their patient families crowded around the hibachi table. The chefs set off the major pyrotechnics, clash enough metal to sound like medieval combatants and then raise the noise level with exhortations just short of a battle cry. Watch out for the flying shrimp and the onion volcano, too.
But there are tables distant enough from the hibachi scene that allow for a less-frenzied experience in the sleekly appointed first-floor dining room, which can seem like a separate restaurant. Service stays accommodating, attentive, friendly.
Devotees immediately start with the pork-filled, Shanghai-style soup dumplings. These puffy, broth-packed specialties require a bit of technique. Let them cool a little, add some vinegar to your spoon, poke a hole into the dumpling, let steam out, then slurp and devour. They’re well-made and satisfying starters. The house’s gyoza, or pan-fried shrimp dumplings, also are fine.
Sweet Mandarin prepares a tasty, nonmedicinal hot-and-sour soup and a better-than-usual wonton soup. You may veer Japanese with the basic miso number. The vegetable-and-shrimp tempura appetizer continues the theme. Go Thai with the tender beef satay.
“Sweet” applies to many of the house’s special sushi rolls. Fried banana is in the “monkey jump” and Snow White rolls; apple in “adventure” roll; and strawberry on top of the Lady Gaga roll. Instead, stick with the traditional nigirizushi or the sashimi, where the emphasis is on the fresh fish without distraction. An exception: the clever “tuna tower.”
Malaysian-style red curry with shrimp is worth sharing, as are the pad Thai noodles with vegetables, and the udon noodles with shrimp tempura and chicken. The Singapore rice noodles add a note of curry.
The Chinese choices excel with a deftly done Beijing duck, served with a half-dozen crepe-thin pancakes instead of buns. The skin is lacquered; the meat tender, with just enough threads of scallion and a brush stroke of hoisin sauce.
Another big bird: Sichuan chicken prepared with walnuts, peanuts and cashews, for a contrast in textures and sufficient crispness.
Orange-flavored beef, however, arrives almost crunch- and citrus-free. The crisp, whole sea bass is marked with a small pepper on the menu. But the modest fish shows up with sauce a lot more cloying than spicy.
Fried banana vies with citrus-dressed banana, fried cheesecake with wobbly, ultra-sweet puddings. But you’ve had enough sweetness. Stick with tea, oolong or green, for a suitable, subtle finale.