Back when I worked in Midtown Manhattan it was a culinary wasteland with just one Sichuan restaurant: the venerable Wu Liang Ye on 46th Street. Today one can choose from three: Wu Liang Ye, the much acclaimed Szechuan Gourmet, and the newly opened Lan Sheng. The last two are on a stretch of 39th Street Zach "Midtown Lunch" Brooks recently praised as one of "the better lunch blocks."
As a self-taught Chinese food expert, it is with genuine embarrassment that I admit I've never been to Szechuan Gourmet. Lan Sheng is another story; it turns out an old college buddy is friends with owner. I was privileged to sample their food at a press dinner last week. A look at what we had, including some items which are being added to the menu, after the jump.
San jiao xia ren, or baby shrimp with three peppers, is a cold appetizer that's not on Lan Sheng's menu just yet. These tiny perfectly cooked shrimp must have sat in the marinade for quite some time because they were crazy good. Pickled green and red chilies along with fresh red chili provide a pleasant amount of heat that contrasts nicely with the cool shrimp.
Chengdu ma la yu ($12 per pound), or Chengdu style spicy yellow croaker, is listed on Lan Sheng's menu, but you have to know where to look. It's the first item in the box of dishes written in Chinese. It warrants three peppers next to the name and is indeed ma la, or "numb hot," thanks to a judicious use of hua jio, or Sichuan peppercorns. (Used in excess the spice creates a sensation that is not unlike licking a 9-volt battery.) The cold fish is crunchy, spicy, sweet, and salty. It's great over rice.
San jiao bian ji, which Lan Sheng's menu lists as stir-fried chicken with spicy capsicum (No. 68, $11.95) also warrants three chili peppers. Coincidentally, the Chinese name means "three pepper chicken." Bony chunks of chicken have been stir fried with Sichuan peppercorns, green peppers, and dried chilies. Like the spicy yellow croaker, it's a Sichuan classic with a goodly amount of heat. Eat enough of it and you'll be mopping the sweat off your brow.
Shui zhu yu, or water boiled fish, is a bubbling cauldron bobbing with chunks of braised fish in an angry red broth containing chili oil, dried peppers, and Sichuan peppercorns. The tender fish is crazy spicy and crazy good. When this dish hits Lan Sheng's new menu I humbly suggest that it gets labeled with four chili peppers. Not that that's a bad thing.
Ma la long xia, or Sichuan style spicy lobster is showered with dried chilies and Sichuan peppercorns.
There's a good reason Lan Sheng's spiciest Sichuan fare is so well-balanced; Chef Zhongqing Wang trained in Chengdu for three years. After that he cooked in China and the States for thirty years. And his number two chef used to work at Wu Liang Ye.
Lan Sheng Szechuan Restaurant
60 West 39th Street (b/n 5th and 6th), New York NY 10018 (map)