Noticing an article in the Honolulu Advertiser’s Dining Out feature on possible options for Father’s Day lunches, my mother suggested we go out for Father’s Day brunch at the Mandalay. The article was neutral, only stating what the Mandalay would be serving for brunch but not giving an opinion on the restaurant. Figuring that the Honolulu Advertiser wouldn’t mention a restaurant if it wasn’t any good, I was open to my mother’s suggestion.
My mistake lay in not consulting food blogs first. It was only one hour before we were set to go to the Mandalay that I finally thought of looking up reviews by fellow Hawaii bloggers. My doubts grew as the reviews I came across (1, 2, 3) were not very favorable. But, with only an hour until lunch time, it was too late to search for a new restaurant.
But, I figured, how badly can someone mess up dim sum?
The Mandalay is located downtown on Alakea St., close to the state capitol and the Hawaii State Art Museum. It is owned by Larry and Linda Chan, who ran the Eastern Garden restaurants for 15 years until they closed the last one down in 2005. I remember Eastern Garden fondly, my family having visited the Aiea location often as I grew up. The food was good, the prices were low, and the restaurant was always pleasingly busy. I did, however, notice a decline in quality in the 2-3 years before the restaurant closed. The decline was not only in the quality of the food, but in every aspect of the restaurant — new plates and forks would be requested after finding the ones on our table greasy or still with bits of food on them.
Still, with memories of Eastern Garden’s earlier years in mind, I was hopeful.
Larry and Linda Chan have opted for a more upscale restaurant. The restaurant has two levels for diners. Those on the bottom floor can enjoy the airiness of the restaurant, the ceiling high above them. There are also decorative vases and costumes on the first floor. Those on the second floor can enjoy the river rock-lined wall, and they are in prime position to people watch.
When we walked into the restaurant, there were three other small parties waiting near the bar/reservation desk. This seemed a little too much for the host, even though there were a lot of empty tables. We were ten minutes early for our reservation, so Linda asked if we could wait. My family and I were a little confused at this, since there was food out and many tables were empty, but we headed out to wait. Immediately after that, Linda came out and said we could wait at our table instead, but we would have to wait a while before eating.
We waited as the staff changed our tablecloth. They do it each time a party leaves. This is a nice touch, but especially welcome because the white tablecloth underneath the new yellow one was terribly stained. Service was a little odd at first. Despite Linda’s remark that we had to wait, a server welcomed us to begin (although the buffet wasn’t fully laid out yet). Our drink orders were taken, and those who ordered sodas were quickly brought their drinks. However, for the two people who simply wanted water, it wasn’t delivered until we were already on our second plate of food.
The simpler items on the menu consisted of somen salad, tofu and watercress salad, chicken and wonton salad, hot and sour soup, fried rice, gon lo mein, steamed pot stickers, pork shu mai, beef broccoli, spring rolls, chicken feet, pan fried white turnip cake, tempura-style nori-wrapped shrimp, deep fried taro puffs, baked sweet cream bun, deep-fried mochi filled with azuki bean paste, mini egg tart in crispy tart shell, and almond tofu topped with azuki beans. As for the entrees, there was of course some kind of fried chicken, some kind of seasoned shrimp, etc., but they failed to provide an indication of what exactly we were eating.
The food was pleasant enough, but there was nothing outstanding. It was all average-tasting food. However, to be fair, this was a buffet. Not fully satisfied with the buffet’s offerings, and curious about the rest of the restaurant’s offerings, we asked a server if we could order off the menu. She responded with, “Yes. What would you like?” We looked to each other briefly before one of us responded, “Steamed char siu bao… and a menu, please.”
I failed to order the Drunken Clams that Reid and the Honolulu Advertiser had raved about, but I have to say that the dishes we ordered were fairly sub-par. To be fair, it was nowhere near terrible. The probem lay in the expectation of higher quality food for the Mandalay’s high prices. The service was odd at times, but once the place filled up a little after noon (and it was packed!!), the servers seemed to get into things, and service was quick and attentive.
Helen Wu of the Advertiser summed it up well,
The Mandalay is definitely nice, but it shows glimpses of greatness, which makes the dips of lackluster food and service all the more frustrating…[S]ervice fluctuated from extreme attentiveness to complete neglect.
My experience at the Mandalay was not terrible, but for the price, it wasn’t quite worth it either. While I wouldn’t return for their dim sum (I prefer the rolling carts of Mei Sum and Legend’s), others have had good experiences with the dinner menu. That’s fair enough, and I wouldn’t turn down an invitation to try dinner there with friends. Even if the dinner lives up to others’ rave reviews, however, the Mandalay clearly still has room for improvement.
The Mandalay has been open for a little over two years, long enough for the disappointed reviews to pile up. Having been a fan of the Chans’ Eastern Garden restaurant, I would love for the Chans to be successful in their new venture. Here’s hoping they have the ability to realize the Mandalay’s faults and turn their restaurant into another success.