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Unfortunately have to report a very strange experience at Mandi Mandi this past weekend. This is a restaurant that I've eaten at in the past and I had a good impression of it as a good option for inexpensive and authentic Italian food in this part of the city (Fumin Lu and Julu Lu). This time around, however, we were sadly let down.
There were a lot of tables taken up by people having just one beer, or a sparkling water while they work on their laptops (kind of annoying), but fortunately we were able to take the last available seats. We ordered a mozzarela salad (caprese salad), ham & mushroom panini, and a pesto pasta along with two waters. The wait was longer than would be expected for the mozzarela salad, close to 30 minutes for a dish that requires no cooking. The restaurant was quite busy with people ordering coffees, cocktails, and ice cream, but that shouldn't have been affecting the kitchen staff. The hot dishes arrived just a few minutes after the salad, so it seems the work flow in the kitchen was having some issues.
The mozzarela salad looked nothing like the picture on the menu, or anything like any caprese salad I've ever seen before. Instead of slices of fresh but firm mozzarela cheese mixed with tomato and sprinkled with herbs, as I would have expected, the fresh mozzarela was served in one big blob in the middle of the plate on a bed of arugula with five slices of tomato fanned out around it like a pinwheel. The mozzarela was very fresh, and only the outside shell had barely set; the inside was like a cheesy soupy mess. The flavor of the cheese was quite good, but it was difficult to eat and enjoy given the bizzare presentation. The waitress said that the Italian owner of the restaurant had recently switched to this type of cheese because it's of higher quality, which may be true, but doesn't make any sense at all for this dish, which customarily features slices of semi-firm cheese. I also didn't understand why we only got half a tomato - were they saving the rest of the tomato for another customer?? The tomato didn't have very fresh flavor at all, which was also disappointing consider it's basically 50% of a dish that you pay 70 RMB for. I would recommend using higher quality tomatoes for a dish in which they feature so prominently - vipe-ripened at least. The arugula was fine, if a bit out of place (wouldn't this dish usually be served with basil?) Overall, good cheese flavor, but untasty, skimpy serving of tomato and bizzare presentation - poor attention to the details of the dish. 3/10.
The pesto pasta was bland, bland, bland, and the spaghetti was overcooked. Not just a little overcooked...VERY overcooked, almost mushy. The basil flavor was very light and there was no other flavor in the dish, not even salt. This is what you'd expect from Saizeriya for 22 RMB, not an Italian-owned restaurant in Shanghai for 75 CNY. Overall 1/10.
The ham panini was passable, but prevented from being very good, again because of a lack of attention to detail. The flavor of the ham, mushroom, and cheese itself was quite nice (a bit salty, but obviously that's what you get with cured ham) and the smooth creaminess of the aioli sauce it came with kind of made up for the saltiness. What held this sandwich back was the usage of the wrong kind of bread. Just crushing something in a panini press doesn't make it a panini; ideally it should be using some high-quality Italian bread style like ciabatta, which will crush down to a reasonable thickness and develop a nice crusty exterior while maintaining a soft pillowy interior. The bread used for this sandwich was a very mealy Chinese version of a French baguette that was very hard on the outside, dense on the inside, and totally tasteless from a bread perspective. After being crushed in the panini press, the outside of the bread was so hard that it was unchewable, like day-old bread. Big disappointment for a sandwich that actually had nice-tasting fillings. Overall, 4/10.
I don't know if I caught Mandi Mandi on an off day, or if standards have really slipped since the last time I went there. It's got really positive reviews on Bon App (86%), so I wonder if I got unlucky with the regular chef on vacation or something. Then again, the top review on Bon App for this restaurant (a positive one) features the identical studio-grade photographs that are used on the restaurant's menu, so I don't know how reliable the Bon App reviews are.
Final score, 2/5, because the panini was sort of OK and the waitstaff were nice enough, and because I remember that it was good the first time I went. Maybe I'll give it another try in 6 months.
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