I walked into a Mandarin buffet for the first time since before the pandemic began and smelled not food but fresh cut flowers.
The Ontario government still prevents buffets from operating and so the Mandarin has replaced all the food on its iconic hot and cold buffet lines with elaborate floral arrangements.
“A buffet table without food is so ugly so we decided to make a garden out of it” explains Mandarin’s James Chiu who invited me out to the company’s only fully corporate owned location in Brampton.
The massive restaurant has just recently reopened serving individual small dishes off a menu. All the Mandarin favourites are there including torpedo shrimp, chicken balls, chow mein and even onion rings.
Each dish is served directly to your table and ranges in price from $1.99 to $4.99.
In the case of the chicken balls three come to an order. It’s a major departure from the company’s eat-as-much-as-you-want for $30 concept that made Mandarin so famous across Ontario, but the CEO says so far most people have been spending around 10% less under the new dim sum style approach.
Many dishes are indeed big enough to share so it’s probably true that a group could get away with the same price or less than what the chain was charging with the full buffet.
I ordered a lot, not quite all 80 dishes on offer but I figured any self respecting reporter needs to have a good grasp of the story right?
My impression? It was noticeably tastier than my experiences with the pre-pandemic Mandarin buffet, the food hotter, the flavours more bold. It’s a function of the food being more “made to order” and sitting around less.
Look, this is not authentic Asian food, that’s not why you ever went to the Mandarin but I love Canadianized Chinese food.
As I attacked my peel and eat shrimp I talked to Chiu about the struggle it’s been for his franchise operation that he and three others built from the ground up since the Mandarin opened its first location in 1979.
He tells me how all 29 locations closed on March 15th, shaking his head as he called it the Ides of March.
He says the the business has been kept alive with the help of interest free government loans and wage subsidies but says he’s worried about what will happen when they run out. He’s honest when I ask him if Mandarin will survive, saying some locations will be ok though he worries about the future of others.
Mandarin has removed some tables to create more distance between diners, cutlery now comes in sealed plastic pouches, there is an attendant at the bathroom door who cleans the washroom after every use, and diners will soon have their temperature taken before being seated. Currently 16 locations are open and the rest are expected to follow soon.
As I tucked into a massive $4.99 banana split for desert I asked Mr. Chiu if he ever intended to open the buffet again
“Oh yes I definitely will” he said “Because that’s what we’re known for and people miss that”
It was good to hear because as much as I really did enjoy the food, I found myself longing for the Mandarin experience of old. The good part was chain now allows diners to take home leftovers, of which I had many.