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Dining Out

When it comes to Chinese, go ask Alice

Mandarin Taste
37 Pond St., Sharon
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 9:45 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10:45 p.m., Sunday noon to 9:45 p.m.
Reservations accepted for groups of six or more
Restrooms not accessible to the handicapped
Major credit cards accepted
Function room for up to 60 people

Mandarin Taste is the suburban version of "Cheers." Maybe not everyone knows your name, but if you visit more than once, chances are owner Alice Hui will recognize you and welcome you back. Her nearly constant presence and vivacious personality are the reasons the eatery has come to be known as "Alice's Mandarin Taste."

Focused on Szechuan and Mandarin cuisine, the restaurant nonetheless caters to the Western palate. Despite her best efforts over the past 19 years to encourage patrons to try new things, Hui said, the big sellers remain kung pao chicken, beef with broccoli, lo mein, and fried rice. She said she is considering heaping a tray with more authentic Chinese food items -- such as Chinese baby greens, lotus root, and dishes made with ginkgo nuts -- and circulating through the dining room offering samples.

The atmosphere is serene. Walls are painted in soothing ochre above grass cloth. Comfortable booths are upholstered in a pattern of burgundy and gold. Wrought iron sconces, hanging frosted-glass lamps, and fabric shades complete the spare, Asian-influenced decor.

While our intent was to broaden our culinary horizons, we had to try the chicken wings ($6.50), described as a Mandarin Taste specialty. They were pleasantly devoid of marinades and sauces, allowing the distinctive flavor of chicken to emerge from beneath the light, crispy coating. An appetizer of steamed meat ravioli ($6, also available pan seared) had spiced pork inside a chewy dumpling accompanied by a light ginger sauce. We would have liked a higher meat-to-pastry ratio, but a knowledgeable friend tells us Mandarin dumplings tend to be doughy.

A special of asparagus with shrimp and scallops ($16.25) featured fat asparagus that was surprisingly tender. The accompanying white sauce, however, was bland, and imparted a uniform flavor to the seafood and accompanying vegetables.

We love General Tsao's (or Gau's) chicken for its combination of crispy chicken pieces in a sweet sauce that surprises the palate with bursts of hot pepper. At Mandarin Taste, however, the chicken was tender but the sweet sauce had no bite at all, even though the dish was marked as "hot and spicy" on the menu.

At Hui's suggestion, we tried chicken with ginger and scallions ($11.25), a combination she called "very Chinese," and it turned out to be our favorite dish. Chicken pieces swam in a savory brown sauce loaded with scallions and sweet onions, and the pungent flavor of ginger left a tingle on our lips.

Yan Chow beef ($11) featured tender beef slices in a slightly thickened hoisin sauce with sauteed red and green peppers and pea pods. It, too, was rich and flavorful, though milder than its "hot and spicy" menu flag led us to expect.

Chow foon ($8.25) combined stir-fried pork (or beef or chicken), mild onions, and scallions with wide, lasagna-like rice noodles. We found it a nice alternative to fried rice or lo mein.

Service was speedy almost to a fault; our dessert of pineapple chunks on ice arrived barely 30 minutes after we had sat down. Such alacrity is undoubtedly a plus for the brisk takeout business, but we would have liked more time between courses -- if only to chat a bit longer with Alice.