"This must be what it's like to dine on a cruise ship," my wife says as we take our seats at Wild Mango.
This is not meant as a compliment, I'm sure, as our mutual opinion — one based solely on snobbish conjecture — is that cruise ships specialize in lackluster food dished up in faux-opulent settings.
Since crossing the threshold of this freshly minted restaurant at Legacy Village, our collective jaws had remained largely unhinged. Guests first enter a boxy antechamber with wooden doors so tall and imposing that one feels a bit like Alice in Wonderland. After extricating oneself from this escape room-style vestibule, diners make the short stroll into the dining room, where they are immersed in an environment so extravagant that it's unsettling, like arriving terribly underdressed to a function. Slick granite floors transition to a sea of creamy carpet beneath an ornately coffered ceiling. Royal blue velvet wingback chairs coddle the posterior but they pale in comparison to the sumptuous high-backed booths, which offer the room and comfort of a private rail cabin. Fabric covered walls, inlaid mahogany furniture and live orchids complete the milieu. Oh, and this is just one of a handful of dining rooms, each with its own thematic decor.
Jia Wei opened his first restaurant in Oberlin nearly 25 years ago, and ever since he has been a one-man culinary explorer, boldly forging his own path. At Wild Mango, diners encounter foods that exist no place else on earth, creations concocted from the chef's own experiences and inspirations. That distinctive cuisine can be, at turns, exceptional, eccentric, quixotic and erratic. Rarely, however, is it boring. What's Pepsi shrimp ($8), you ask? Nobody knows but Wei, who displays the deep-fried crustaceans in an elevated porcelain urn as if they were rare gemstones.
When he's playing it straight, as with the sashimi starter ($15), Wei hits it out of the theme park. Alternating slices of escolar, yellowfin tuna and king salmon truly do look like vivid jewels, shimmering with translucent freshness and gilded with slivers of pickled jalapeno. There are precious few twists to the pot stickers ($8) as well. Exemplars of technique, the thin-skinned dumplings are filled with a flavorful ground chicken blend and pan fried (not deep fried) to crisp up one side.
What would be an incongruous outlier at other Pan-Asian restaurants is, at Wild Mango, standard operating procedure. There's an appetizer version of eggplant Parmesan ($8) that layers meaty flanks of the vegetable between sliced tomato and a cap of melted cheese. A shower of basil oil doesn't make up for a lack of seasoning. Alongside steakhouse salads like wedges and Caesars, one finds a Vietnamese salad bowl ($9), a largely straightforward take on those uber-fresh vermicelli noodle dishes. This version is topped with crispy bias-cut spring rolls, and the dressing possesses that characteristic fish sauce twang.
One doesn't often cross paths with chicken cordon bleu these days, but Wei trots out a version ($20) that stuffs a split breast with spinach, mushrooms and mozzarella that weeps when the meat is bisected. In typical Wild Mango fashion, the entire parcel is wrapped in bacon and seated on a mound of fried rice. No entree better epitomizes the personality of Wei's cooking, perhaps, than the Salmon Duo ($22), a colorful, complicated construction that elicits oohs and aahs from tablemates. Arranged on a surfboard-sized platter are two preparations of the same fish, a pesto-slicked filet and teriyaki-glazed roulade, each atop a different starch. Salmon fans likely will adore the perfectly cooked fish, but the sauteed vegetable medley that accompanies it is hampered by a sweet, starchy varnish.
A savory, complex and utterly delicious coconut-curry style bouillabaisse ($28) is served in a bowl large enough to accommodate a newborn. Below a raft of sweet seafood like shrimp, mussels, clams and scallops is a tangle of vermicelli noodles so vast that it solidifies into a mass before you can barely make a dent. This definitely is a case where smaller would be better.
It's hard to be a happy-go-lucky diner in a setting like this. Given the lavish surroundings (and lofty tariffs), not only does one expect Michelin-starred cuisine, but also a commensurate level of service. What might be minor lapses elsewhere seem to get magnified here, the Taj Mahal of Lyndhurst. Those sharp black suits can't conceal clumsy wine service, uninformed answers about the menu, and long gaps between visits. Wei literally designed the furniture, right down to the curvature of the backrests; here's hoping he can fashion a better training protocol.