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by Suzanne Wright

Housed in a two-story, 105-year-old home on Juniper Street’s emerging restaurant row, Mulan is gambling on the fact that a fine-dining establishment can succeed in tony digs. For Mulan’s grand opening in December 2002, the owners spent seven months renovating and decorating the house, including adding a massive kitchen to handle take-out orders.

Mulan has changed my idea of what a Chinese restaurant should look like. When I open the door, the putty-colored entryway has a metal inlay on the floor, courtesy of artist Bong-in Kim from New York. He’s also festooned the walls with graceful bamboo inlay. The name “mulan” actually means “wood orchid,” and it is a recurring theme throughout the restaurant. Gorgeous dark hardwoods gleam (look for the tiny mulans hand painted on the surface); rice paper filters light above the tiny bar tucked under the stairs. The first table on the right is a knockout — a curved banquette with a view of the street.

I like the hushed feeling of the tone-on-tone décor inspired by nature. Each of the two dining rooms on the first floor are serene, thanks to an especially a lovely “wall” featuring reeds or grasses (I’m not sure which) sandwiched between glass, an effect repeated on the second level. The bathrooms have traditional black and white paintings of Chinese men and women, and copper cladding, but oddly, the hand-painted sinks look Mexican or Italian.

Layers of paint were stripped off to reveal a beautiful, polished staircase. We pass a stained-glass window saved during the renovation. In fact, there are several throughout the place, but they seem a bit out of place with the rest of the décor. There are three rooms and a private dining room on the second floor. Two of the rooms are ravishing, separated by another glass “wall” – this one decorated with antique wooden figurines and a bowl in which a single white lotus flower floats. One room has the only touch of red in the place — a wall that is pigeon-blood red with gold swirls decorating it.

The other two rooms, however, are like women wearing one too many pieces of jewelry. The colors are more aggressive, odd light fixtures sprout from the ceiling, and there is a clash of upholstery fabric, a pearl curtain and busy walls. The knockout calligraphy-decorated rice paper accent (again behind glass) on one wall has to compete with all this, and the effect is considerably less restive.
The wait staff includes Chinese, Latin and American men (I didn’t see any women), as does the kitchen. Everyone is exceptionally sweet and friendly — a welcome departure from the brusque treatment associated with many Chinese establishments. Staffers regale us with stories about the décor, taking obvious pride in their surroundings.

The dining room menu is gourmet Chinese, while the delivery offerings are standards. Mulan may aspire to the culinary heights of China Moon Café or Susannah Foo in Philadelphia, but it has a way to go. Still, this is an evolving restaurant, and the staff is making adjustments, even inviting diners to request dishes they have eaten in San Francisco or New York.

Mulan’s menu is heavy on seafood. We begin with sushi-esque crabmeat/shrimp/scallop rolls in fried panko breading. The heavy breading seems a bit overpowering for the delicate seafood. I recommend the soft shell crab with salt and pepper and the Beijing duck for two. Both the crab and duck are greaseless. The crab is beautifully seasoned and requires no sauce; It’s a real pleasure. An update on a classic dish, the duck is pricey ($15), presented tableside with cucumber, plum sauce, scallions and puffy Chinese buns instead of the typical pancakes. The resulting sandwiches are fun to eat and very tasty.

Dinner entrees average $18-20 and are uneven. Jumbo shrimp with black peppercorn sauce is disappointing. The shrimp is overcooked and the savory brown sauce is not distinctive. The filet mignon (Mulan uses the very good Buckhead Beef) Hong Kong Style is unlike preparations I’ve seen that include rice wine vinegar. Its brown sauce looks just like that of the shrimp. The perfectly pan-seared salmon with lightly spicy red curry sauce is rather Thai-like and enjoyable.

The wine list is a work in progress. The owners are still working to balance the short list with appropriate, affordable choices. I’d like to see a Gewürztraminer and a good-quality Zinfandel and Pinot Noir.

In spring and summer, patio dining expands the 80 seats inside. “We want to be a part of the fabric of the neighborhood,” says manager Michael Mitcham, with obvious sincerity. I hope that, like a wood orchid, Mulan will bloom in subsequent visits.

Mulan is located at 824 Juniper Street. For reservations, call (404) 877-5797.
from top: Black mussels in garlic and white wine; Asian style surf & turf; Head chef; Raspberry Key Lime ice-cream cheesecake.