It's easy to find good Thai, Vietnamese or Japanese food in town, but finding good Chinese food is another matter.
It's interesting that Chinese-American food is such a part of our culture that it's an authentic cuisine of its own, much like Tex-Mex. I don't have a beef with either -- bring on the General Tso's chicken and the burritos -- but the problem with many local Chinese restaurants is that the quality of the food is low, full of cheap starches, sugar and MSG.
Not all of them, of course. We have a few nice Chinese restaurants, but coming across one is rare enough that it's always a surprise.
Mulan Chinese Bistro recently opened its third area location in Cooper-Young. It's top-notch.
The selection is vast, with more than 100 choices of Chinese-American dishes and about an equal number of authentic Szechwan dishes. There's also a selection of sushi and sashimi (we tried only a couple of items), and combination dinners that include soup and a spring roll are offered in lunch and dinner portions.
We'll start with the easy stuff. Walnut shrimp was a childhood favorite, when we'd eat at what I still believe was a pretty good Chinese restaurant. But Mulan's version is simply decadent.
Large fried shrimp are tossed in a thick, luscious sweet and savory coconut milk sauce. Walnuts, served on the side, are sweet and buttery. This is a stellar example of why good Chinese-American cuisine deserves some respect. Other dishes, such as Hunan beef and chicken in garlic sauce, are also good -- much better than you'll find at your run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurant.
The ambience also makes clear that Mulan is a cut above; there was even a guzheng player providing music on the traditional Chinese stringed instrument a recent Friday night.
The restaurant sits in the large spot formerly occupied by Blue Fish and The Reef. The back (the east side) is open and hasn't been in use when I've visited. The main dining room is plenty big, and there's a large sushi bar (which will also be a full bar when the liquor license is approved) on the outer wall. Two banks of booths down the center are separated by panels of glass with the illusion of reeds trapped inside, and then tables flank the windows in the front.
If you want to see and be seen, the latter is the place to sit. Right at the corner of Cooper and Young, you can watch the world go by at the intersection of Hip and Cool.
(The sole drawback to table seating is there's an uncomfortable bar on the back of each chair. Don't worry too much about it, as your body will adjust; lean forward, or slouch down just a touch.)
The really interesting food is on the Szechwan menu, and (for the most part) you need to pay attention and take the pepper symbols seriously -- when it's hot, it's hot. Ask your server about the heat level; they say they're happy to adjust.
The Mao's-style braised pork in soy sauce, despite having a pepper symbol by it, was fairly mild. Large chunks of pork are seasoned until red, cooked until meltingly tender, and served in a covered pot on a bed of tofu and lightly wilted bok choy. The sauce is highly fragrant, full of anise, ginger and maybe even a touch of cinnamon.
The Szechwan menu contains dishes that might, to use a highly technical phrase, give you the willies. There's pork tripe and ox tripe, pig intestine done several ways, and even boiled blood curd.
Have at it. I went with fish and chicken, both excellent choices.
"Hot pots" often are big pots of very hot broth in which you cook raw meat just before you eat it, but not at Mulan.
Instead, small woks come on a stand over canned heat. You leave the heat at full flame for a few minutes (your server will tell you how long), which brings the liquid to a boil and brings the flavors together. We ordered the fish in hot pot, which was breaded catfish served with mild and hot peppers and plenty of sliced onion. The sauce was spicy, hot but not fiery, and thickened a bit over the heat. It was excellent, and I'll work my way through the other hot pots, too.
At the suggestion of our server (service was spotty, though generally efficient; I believe there's a good foundation in place and that it will improve), we went with the Hunan bandit chicken. Small, tender bites of chicken were surrounded by fresh peppers, just lightly sauced, and it was hot.
And everything was delicious.
Two other dishes are worth mentioning: The sliced pork belly is served at room temperature, covered in a spicy red oil with garlic and green onion. It's superb.
And you can't go wrong starting your meal with the tuna tartar. This is a beautiful dish. Diced raw tuna is mixed with mango and silky bits of avocado, pressed in a square, topped with a generous layer of masago (roe) and garnished with pieces of fried lotus root.
Mulan has been open in Midtown only for about six weeks, and already it seems destined to become yet another gem in Cooper-Young.
-- Jennifer Biggs: (901) 529-5223
Mulan Chinese Bistro
Address: 2149 Young.
Telephone: (901) 347-3965.
Hours: 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon- 9 p.m. Sunday.
Reviewer's choices: Sliced pork belly ($7.95); fish in hot pot ($13.95); tuna tartar ($9); walnut shrimp, $16.95.
Alcohol: Beer for now; wine and liquor license is pending. Until then, no corkage fee if you bring wine.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars