TURNING CANTONESE

In Jacksonville we have limited options for authentic, crave-able Chinese food; our choices pretty much begin and end with crummy mall style wannabes. But at Peony Asian Bistro in Mandarin, life takes on

new meaning.

Tucked in a strip mall, Peony’s is unassuming as it comes and they don’t try too hard. The decorations are minimal; all attention is focused on the food. To get a good feel for their menu we ordered the beef brisket noodle soup ($8.95), a half portion of the Peking duck (1/2 $17.95, full $33.95), and eggplant with garlic sauce ($8.95). The first indication that we were going to get a solid, traditional meal at Peony’s was the fact that the food comes out family style for sharing – or just for the very hungry.

The wait staff is attentive and knowledgeable; our waiter didn’t hesitate to confirm when I asked if the beef soup had Napa cabbage. The staff gives great recommendations depending on your tastes, and is quick to refill glasses.

The Peking duck came out first accompanied by five fluffy white boa buns that emitted little clouds of steam when opened. The duck comes with a little tray filled with paper-thin slivers of green onion, cucumber spears and a generous pot of hoisin sauce. And the skin! With Peking duck, the skin is how you know if the dish is prepared properly, and Peony’s was just the right golden color. It was cooked to such crispy perfection it practically melted in the mouth. The combination of the tangy sweet sauce slathered on the warm steamed buns with cool and refreshing veggies, crispy skin and perfectly cooked duck made each bite more perfect than the last.

The eggplant came out sizzling, presented in its own ceramic dish with a domed top to keep it piping hot. The rich, thick, garlicky sauce is a concoction that you don’t want a single piece of rice to miss out on. The waiter mentioned that you can ask the chef to go easy on the sauce, but, in case you haven’t already noticed my love for all things saucy, I think you’d be crazy to make such a request.

The beef soup comes in a bowl large enough to bathe in, and after one sniff of the steam you’ll want to dive in. Using chopsticks, I swirled around the bowl to discover all of the delicious things hiding in the dark bone broth, like the Napa cabbage, hilariously long egg noodles, and large chunks of beef. 

To finish off your Cantonese feast, the waiters bring a few wedges of ripe oranges. The orange, a symbol of luck and good fortune in Chinese culture, is a thoughtful finish to the meal that makes you notice how precisely the kitchen pays attention to the ingredients and the flavors in each and every dish. It may be the end of your meal, but you know you’ll be back.

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