Peter Liu, the owner of O Mandarin Restaurant in Hicksville, wants to return to his roots. And by roots, he means bringing an authentic Chinese experience, complete with outstanding cuisine, to Long Island.
“I’ve always had a taste for the restaurant business and for fine food,” says Liu, who also owns an O Mandarin in Westchester which he opened in 2017.
While Liu, who came to the U.S. at age 18 from Shanghai, China, didn’t go to culinary school, he studied hotel management in New Orleans where he says he “fell in love with people, hotels and especially restaurants.”
“I was good at what I was doing and had many thoughts on cooking in general,” he says, adding that he used to cook, but now focuses mainly on handling front-of-house duties.
Before opening O Mandarin, Liu owned several Asian-fusion and hibachi-style restaurants in both Westchester and Texas. He also did several stints managing restaurants in New Orleans before moving to New York in 2010.
Talking about his most recent venture, which opened in January, Liu says that while Chinese food has a long history, he feels it “was never presented properly in America.”
Liu, 40, says he wants to change that.
“I’m not only interested in presenting the best food I can, but also the history of the Chinese culture, including furnishings from the Ming dynasty and artifacts you might find in a Chinese village,” he says.
In addition, he says, “I want to elevate my brand of Chinese cuisine to more of an experience. I don’t want it to be just about the food.”
Liu says that the large, 170-seat restaurant features an array of antiques and pieces of furniture that might be found in village houses in China.
He notes that O Mandarin’s opening was delayed by the pandemic by about three years but that “everything happens for a reason.” A 100-seat patio is currently under construction as well.
“Things are getting busy now and business is pretty good,” he says, noting that many Chinese American families moved to Long Island due to the pandemic.
So far, Liu says, O Mandarin is very popular among Chinese Americans, but he hopes to further build his customer base among a diverse group of Long Islanders.
In the kitchen is Executive Chef Eric Gao, a James Beard Award-winning chef who strives to make sure that O (the O stands for original) Mandarin’s elevated Northern Chinese cuisine can never be mistaken for one of the island’s almost ubiquitous takeout spots that many people associate with typical Chinese food.
“We only use the best-quality ingredients, from fresh seafood to top quality chicken and beef. Our food quality is much higher than what a takeout place would use,” Liu says.
Liu adds that sauces are also very different. “A takeout place will make a sauce and use it for three or four days. We never do that. Everything is prepared fresh, on the spot, when it’s ordered,” Liu explains, adding that many takeout places will use sauces for days to keep costs down.
Some signature dishes include Mandarin pork shank, Peking duck, Chongqing chili chicken, Sichuan basil beef, whole fish, and dim sum, along with a variety of dumplings and noodles. Liu says everything is made from scratch using simple ingredients such as salt and pepper for dipping as well as vinegar as a marinade.
Liu says he wants people to experience O Mandarin.
“Many people don’t understand authentic Mandarin cuisine, which tends to pair mild spices with colorful vegetables. But that’s OK, you have to have a starting point,” Liu says, adding that some good Chinese places take decades to establish themselves.
While he admits that his restaurant isn’t cheap, he says they use the best, freshest ingredients to make every dish. “People can taste the difference. People come to my place for special occasions, and I want them to have good memories.
Asked about pandemic-related issues, Liu says that the same problems affecting most restaurants now are constant issues, including problems finding front-of-house staff such as servers, bartenders, and managers.
“We ask that people are patient with us as we’re still struggling to hire adequate staff…times are tough, the pandemic has caused lots of restaurant workers to leave the industry entirely.”
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