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REVIEW: Sweet Mandarin | Northern Quarter

Lucy Tomlinson on an overachieving Chinese restaurant losing focus

Written by . Published on November 17th 2014.

REVIEW: Sweet Mandarin | Northern Quarter

IF LISA Simpson were a restaurant she’d be Sweet Mandarin. Overachiever and proud of it.

I am full of admiration for everything the Tse sisters have achieved, but it seems that with all their other commitments, business ventures and multiple revenue streams the food has been forgotten.

In the ten years it's been open, Sweet Mandarin has (deep breath): gained an AA rosette, won the Best Local Chinese Restaurant on Gordon Ramsay’s F Word, got backing from the Dragon’s Den, launched a line of eponymous sauces, run a cookery school and naturally there is the Sweet Mandarin Cookbook. Talk about diversifying revenue streams.

Add to that the fact that Sweet Mandarin is co-owned by twin sisters, Helen and Lisa Tse, both of whom were awarded MBEs for services to the food and drink sector this year, plus their younger sister Janet. Helen Tse is also a Cambridge-educated lawyer who still runs her own law firm and, amazingly, is the first British-born Chinese author. Has there really never been a BBC author before 2007? I can’t find any evidence of one from my in-depth research (ten hard minutes on the googleface). That is pretty astonishing.

I picked up a copy of Helen’s memoir, also called Sweet Mandarin, and it’s a good read (any book with a chapter named Chips, Chips, Chips has my vote). Almost as long as a memoir is Sweet Mandarin’s menu, which displays the same writerly touches. The inspirational little paragraphs describing each dish might be an irritant for those who want to get straight down to eatin’ business and are not interested in ‘the journey’, but for me it had the intended effect - I genuinely wanted to try almost every dish on the menu.

Sweet MandarinSweet Mandarin

On the other hand, the menu also proudly boasts a photo of the sisters with Prime Minister David Cameron and the Premier of China, Li Keqiang - Sweet Mandarin catered for the Premier’s official state visit in June of this year. The mind boggles – what did they serve? Aromatic crispy protester for Premier Li? A dish of sweet chilli benefits claimant with a side of egg-fried Europhile for the PM to 'chillax' with?

Actually, there's actually a page of the menu devoted to the sisters’ trip to Downing Street, so if you want to dine like Dave this is your chance. It’s mostly chicken based.

Less politically divisive are the range of cocktails inspired by the Chinese zodiac (£6.95 each). Again I wanted to try them all, but sense prevailed and we stuck to three. I started with a Rooster, a strawberry-pineapple combo that tasted exactly like a cola cube. Sheep tasted like shampoo. A jolly nice pear-flavoured alcoholic shampoo, but shampoo nonetheless. The Horse cocktail was basically a rather nice cosmopolitan, though I can’t in all conscience recommend readers go out and get wrecked on Horse, just in case someone gets the wrong idea.

A complimentary dish of prawn crackers gave us a chance to sample the Sweet Mandarin sauces which so impressed those Dragons (shame they choose to dine instead in San Carlo and Artisan, who as far as I know don’t have their own range of sauces). They were very good, especially the barbeque, which didn’t taste of fake smoke like so many do.

Mabel's ChickenMabel's Claypot Chicken


Our first starter, salt and chilli squid (£6.95, starters pictured main image) was the dish touted as winning The F Word. Perhaps the Tse sisters used up their lifetime supply of salt and chilli on old Gordon because there wasn’t much kick to be found here, just some flaccid pieces of squid in floury batter (a sure sign the fryer is not hot enough). Equally beige and lifeless were the wasabi king prawns (£13.95), lumpy protein nuggets deep-fried and doused in what can only be described as a vaguely spicy custard. Wasabi is meant to steam clean your nasal passages not barely tickle your tastebuds.

Honey soya glazed chicken wings (£9.95) were also disappointing, with watery flesh and elastic skin. I gave up half-way through chewing one, truly a bad sign. Mabel’s Claypot Chicken (£10.95) was the most interesting dish we ordered. Combining chicken, mushrooms, lap cheung sausage, it was delicately flavoured. So if you like your Chinese cuisine more subtle than Sichuan, this is a dish for you. I’m more of a Hunan girl myself.

We also ordered the Fish of the Day (£16.95), which turned out to be sea bass (when is it not sea bass? How I long for the FotD to be lionfish or swamp eel one day). This was firm and well cooked, a nice piece of fish served in a strangely fatty stock on a few limp pieces of pak choi. Again I could have gone for a bit more general oomph.

I can believe that in its best days Sweet Mandarin has been a fine addition to both the Northern Quarter and Manchester’s Chinese food ‘offer’ (hideous word but seems appropriate here). But those days are not right now.

I am full of admiration for everything the Tse sisters have achieved, but it seems that with all their other commitments, business ventures and multiple revenue streams the food has been forgotten. It would only take a small shift to get things going again. A bit more heat, both in cooking temperature and spice level, would make all the difference. I hope Sweet Mandarin finds its groove again. In the meantime I’ll read the book and buy the sauces.


Sweet Mandarin, 19 Copperas St, Manchester M4 1HS, 0161 832 8848

Rating 9/20

Food: 3/10 (salt & chilli squid 2/10, wasabi prawns 2/10, chicken wings 2/10, Mabel’s chicken 4/10 sea bass 4/10)

Service: 3/5

Ambience: 3/5

PLEASE NOTE: Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing, 14-15 worth a trip, 16-17 very good, 18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20, we get carried away

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35 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousNovember 17th 2014.

this place's successes have always completely baffled me - the food has never been anything above completely average and often borders on horrid. generic takeaway food served in a restaurant.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
DigsterNovember 17th 2014.

Whilst I do try to not post negative comments - or at least try and balance them with something positive - have to agree with you on this one. Took my husband there as a surprise and it was dreadful. Waited ages to be served, eventually our orders were taken and our starters practically thrown across the table to us. We had only been eating a few minutes and the mains arrived. Told them that we were not ready yet so they just left them on the end of the table. When we did eat them they were not even nice - had better in a take away.

AnonymousNovember 17th 2014.

I've also had a terrible experience at Sweet Mandarin; shocking service, terribly average food, and a very off-hand dismissal of our complaints. I haven't bothered returning.

DigsterNovember 17th 2014.

"not to"

AnonymousNovember 17th 2014.

I'm not sure politics and food reviews mix very well. Its a shame to have that 'politically divisive' comment in here, they catered a high profile banquet, doing the cooking is not really political at all.

1 Response: Reply To This...
feastofsnakesNovember 17th 2014.

Of course doing the cooking is political, you dunce.

Helen TaylorNovember 17th 2014.

I booked a table here for post-Chinese New Year fireworks with friends last year. I was surprised it was so easy to get a table for 8 at Chinese New Year in an award-winning restaurant, but it soon became clear why, as the food was lacklustre and disappointing, with none of the expected flair and the menu hardly differed from the mainstream Chinatown joints. Our table wasn't ready for us either, despite booking ahead, and the themed cocktails were sickly and awful. I haven't bothered going back, and this review hasn't persuaded me to change my mind!

AnonymousNovember 17th 2014.

Thank you, thank you, thank you! Common sense has finally prevailed! At last, someone agrees that this is a dreary, middle of the road, overpriced, Emperor's new clothes excuse for an eatery. I, too, have always been baffled by the plethora of inexplicable accolades this place has received.

Cor OnaNovember 17th 2014.

Never had a good meal there.

Henry VNovember 17th 2014.

This is the poorest Chinese in the city IMHO. I just don't see how the owners have been able to PR themselves so strongly; they are certainly Queens of brand building. Absolutely no substance there.

AnonymousNovember 17th 2014.

The AA should be ashamed of themselves for giving this place a rosette.

food for thoughtNovember 17th 2014.

Shit mandarin

AnonymousNovember 18th 2014.

I'm sure I read about PP Wong being the first published British born Chinese author. Sprung to mind when I read this review then I went back to check. Was a Guardian review, but then it went on to say first British born Chinese person to 'get a book deal'. So perhaps a case of semantics as to the meaning of 'published'.

AnonymousNovember 18th 2014.

Red Chilli and Happy Seasons are a cut above any other Chinese in the city!

1 Response: Reply To This...
pollolocoNovember 18th 2014.

Red Chilli isn't patch on Red N Hot...used to be good though...think they've lost good staff though, the food lacks depth and the quality just isn't there anymore. Agree with Happy Seasons though. Glamorous for Dim Sum still the best although shit carpets!

AnonymousNovember 18th 2014.

this place is awful now, used to be satisfactory the last time I went the food was bland, service appalling (had to ask 3 times for a beer), wrong amount on the bill, robbie williams on the stereo (in a chinese!?) and to top things off the light in the mens toilet was out so people were using the inbuilt light on their phones so in order to see where they were pissing

Gina McDadeNovember 18th 2014.

We went a few weeks ago, the main meal wasn't the best but to be honest I find chinese main dishes borning anyway. However the Salt adn pepper chicken wings were amazing, absolutely gorgeous, they were crispy not soggy, full or flavour and fresh..........the best wings I have ever had.

AnonymousNovember 18th 2014.

I order takeout from them regularly (only because I don't know of any decent alternatives); overpriced overrated food, and I'm not even exaggerating here; the last time I ordered it took 37 attempts to call before they could be arsed to answer the phone. Recommendations for better and ideally cheaper alternative Chinese take aways (that don't use MSG) would be gratefully received as I'm seriously done with Sweet Mandarin.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousNovember 18th 2014.

I think you've just provided a perfect example of how poor businesses manage to survive.

AnonymousNovember 19th 2014.

I know but there's a real lack of meaningful information on better alternatives - it's 5 mins walk from my flat and I've tried several others, all terrible. It's nice to see the outpouring of help from the friendly people of Manchester - So are there any better alternatives as I don't particularly like the taste of digs and insults

AnonymousNovember 18th 2014.

Why would you ring a takeaway 37 times ? You sound like an absolute bellend

2 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousNovember 19th 2014.

Because I was trying to order a Chinese, it was late and I was struggling for alternative options. I might sound like an absolute bellend, you've just proved that you are one. Thanks for your help shit-for-brains!

AnonymousNovember 19th 2014.

Just-eat.co.uk might give you one or two alternative ideas...

AnonymousNovember 18th 2014.

I'm not sure if their sauces would help increasing my appetite...maybe they would if the bottles' images changed.

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousNovember 18th 2014.

You meant the gorgeous Lisa Tse being on the cover? Tight but true!

Steve5839November 18th 2014.

I seem to be amongst company here, I have been to this restaurant twice, before and after "fame" and both times it was pedestrian. So not wanting to drag up why they are thought to be so successful (see earlier MC piece) I must say it is not one of Manchester's best.

William MorrisNovember 18th 2014.

I agree - the menu and back story make promises that the food doesn't deliver. Bland, poorly cooked - a very disappointing experience. The Chinese equivalent of KFC.

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousNovember 18th 2014.

William...can't agree with you. KFC is much better.

AnonymousNovember 18th 2014.

This article shows what they cooked for Cameron and Li. gbtimes.com/…/sisters-serve-lunch-li-and-cameron-britain… They must have forgotten their dinner the night before!

AnonymousNovember 19th 2014.

Went here a couple of times a few years ago and was bang average and overpriced for what it was. Just shows how influential good marketing can be for a restaurant. Can't imagine they get many repeat customers but there will always be enough people going once after hearing good things about them in the media I guess.

Geoff BainesNovember 19th 2014.

Go to Red Chili on Portland Street to see what real Chinese food tastes like

J] MasonNovember 19th 2014.

This place isn't a patch on Red Chilli or other places in China Town and it has always baffled me when people have raved about the place. Bland food in my opinion.

mab30November 22nd 2014.

I don't get this either - 'treated' a few of us to Sweet Mandarin and we all felt it was below average food at above average prices with too much sales schlock on bottles of sauce. Tse's - stick to one field 'cos neither we nor many we know won't be giving this poor food or service a 2nd look.

Sam HowardNovember 27th 2014.

I read this article last week and suddenly I'm getting emails from sweet mandarin... what gives? I didn't subscribe...

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