Our Lunar New Year meal began with an auspicious start.
During the Lion Dance, the lion regurgitated a head of lettuce and it flew across the room. We heard wine glasses clatter.
“This hasn’t happened before,” exclaimed our hostess. She held up a water glass into which the flying lettuce had made a perfect landing. We clapped and the festivities continued.
This year, St. Louis coordinated a Lunar New Years celebration that spanned the past two weekends. When four Chinese restaurants announced they were offering 10-course banquets, we eagerly bought our tickets. Each cost $30 (plus a small online processing fee) and included a beer or glass of wine. Our friends at Dive Bars 2 Five Stars mentioned enjoying Dim Sum at Mandarin House so we chose this restaurant and joined them at a table.
The event’s hostess appeared to be an owner and warmly welcomed everyone. She joked that, because our table was filled with younger people, she left two vacant seats in case we had bigger appetites. We probably did. She also warned us that a lot of food was arriving and that no one would leave hungry and she was also right.
This particular banquet took place at Mandarin House’s Banquet Hall located along Olive Street next to Seafood City grocery store. We knew the menu ahead of time, but nothing prepared us for how spectacular it would be. Here’s a list of the courses:
- Beef Soup West Lake Style
- Assortment of Appetizers
- Peking Duck
- Shrimp & Scallops in Bird Nest
- Ginger Scallion Lobsters
- Braised Pork Belly
- Salt & Pepper Flounder Fish
- Mandarin Beef
- Bok Choy over Mushroom
- Fried Rice
- Dessert: Homemade Pastries
I haven’t dined at Mandarin House before and am no Chinese food expert, but everything tasted good. Really really good. The menu offerings and portion sizes were generous and we felt like we were dining at a friend’s home.
Eating family style is fun, especially when there’s a Lazy Susan. Repeating “Please pass the _____,” or “Pardon my reach” gets old. Simply spin the top of the table like you’re a DJ spinning a record and grab a bite of any dish. On the flip side, eating family-style with strangers can be extremely awkward, but, in our case, it was enjoyable. We actually got along so well with our new friends that we recommenced over sour beers at Side Project Cellar afterwards.
This cold appetizer platter gave us an opportunity to try new-to-us foods. It included jellyfish, chicken, thin, sliced beef, duck made out of pressed tofu and beef tendon.
The beef tendon and jelly fish had a similar texture to firm rice noodles and tasted of chili and sesame oil. We found there’s really nothing strange tasting about jellyfish or tendon. At the end of the meal, Jake mentioned that the tendon was one of his favorite dishes
This shrimp and scallion dish arrived in a crispy noodle nest. After admiring the handiwork, we had a jolly time cracking it apart and eating it.
And then there was Peking duck. Like I mentioned, we got along really well with our tablemates, but we heard words exchanged when someone tried to sneakily grab the last Peking duck bun. If there’s a food worth fighting over, it’s probably Peking duck.
Making Peking duck is a lot of work. Some restaurants require diners to order Peking ducks with advanced notice. We made Peking ducks in culinary school and it was a labor of love involving a fragrant water bath, air compressors, overnight drying time in the fridge, stuffing, and roasting. A Peking duck’s biggest reward is the crispy, paper-thin skin that’s rendered. Sure, the duck meat is delicious too, but the prize is really the skin.
The hostess stopped by each table to make sure everyone knew how to enjoy the duck. By the time she reached us, we had already smeared the steamed buns with hoisin sauce and filled them with scallion and crispy skin.
One friend commented that the steamed buns look similar to mozzarella cheese and I can see the resemblance. If you’ve never tried a steamed bun, they are soft and fluffy in texture and taste like white bread. They’re the perfect, bland vehicle to hold flavorful fillings like pork belly or Peking duck.
Another one of our favorite dishes included this salt and pepper flounder stuffed with nuggets of itself. Diabolical. A wise tablemate reached over and plucked out the checks with her chopsticks. The fish pieces were fluffy as clouds and crisp. The salt and pepper dishes we’ve enjoyed, like squid and crab, are deep-fried in a salty, crispy batter and flecked with garlic and hot peppers.
There wasn’t a course we didn’t enjoy. The vegetable course featured the most perfectly round mushroom, shiny and brown like buckeyes and meaty in flavor.
When the platter of lobster arrived, we chose our favorite pieces and picked out the meat with our fingers and chopsticks. It tasted very fresh. The Mandarin beef tasted similar to peppery jerky and the big cubes of pork belly were a pork fat-lovers daydream. The thick layer of fat was both chewy and melty.
We were surprised when servers carried big platters of fried rice to each table right before dessert. By the end of the nine courses, we were so full that it was almost comical. Fortunately, our hostess provided to-go boxes for the leftovers. No one could really eat more than a taste of the rice but that didn’t stop us from singing its praises. As far as Jake and I have found, it’s the best fried rice we’ve eaten. It was light in color, delightfully fluffy, and flavorful with no greasiness.
Finally, we ended our meal with dessert. I chose a small, coconut-covered mochi ball (soft, chewy rice cake) filled with red bean paste. Red bean paste is something that’s grown on us both. At first, we didn’t like it and now we’re happy to see it. Generally, I find Asian pastries to taste less sweet. Red bean paste is earthy sweet, but not super sweet, with a beany, grainy texture.
In conclusion, we enjoyed a meal prepared by Mandarin House worth talking about for years to come. We’d highly recommend signing-up for a Lunar New Years banquet if they’re offered again next year. Between the preview at LuLu’s, special Urban Chestnut Moon Monkey Ale beer tasting event, banquets, parade, and night market, it appears that St. Louis threw one heck of a celebration this year.