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[Photographs: Laura Togut]

Szechuan Gourmet

21 W 39th St, New York NY 10018 (between 5th & 6th Ave; map); 212-921-0233; szechuangourmetnyc.com
Cuisine: Chinese
Veggie Options: 11 appetizers, 14 entrees
Cost: Appetizers $3-8, entrees $9-15

Apparently I hadn't been paying attention back in 2008 when first Ed Levine and then Frank Bruni extolled the virtues of Szechuan Gourmet. So when I discovered that there was authentic Sichuan Chinese food in Midtown, sitting in the middle of corporate-office-ville and just a hop-skip away from Times-Square-tourist-land, I was quite surprised, and quite excited. A few key dishes have become renowned favorites here (notably the crispy lamb filets with chili cumin, for any meat-eaters in the audience), but I wanted to find out whether any of their veggie options could also stand up to the hype.

The Spicy Sesame Noodles ($4.95, pictured above) were quite tasty, but be prepared for the burn. Even though these were only a "one chili pepper" on the menu, the noodles leave a fiery burn in your mouth; but in the background is a very subtle, smooth, and slightly sweet sesame flavor that adds an addictive quality to these noodles and makes the fire all worthwhile.

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But the Stir-Fried String Beans with Yibin Veggie Buds ($9.95), in my opinion, stole the show. I've always been a big fan of dry fried string beans, and these were notably better than most Chinatown versions I've had. Dry but oily, both sweet and salty—this induced an addiction of junk food proportions.

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The one other vegetarian entree on the Sichuan section of the menu is the Stir-Fried Shredded Potatoes with Cayenne Chili ($9.95), which had been recommended in Frank Bruni's writeup. Compared to the noodles, the spice levels here were mild. As was everything else about it. Or as my dining companion put it, "it's about as flavorful as it is colorful." Ouch. Perhaps the dish has lost its pizzazz since Frank first had it, but as much as I tried to like it, it was the disappointment of the meal.

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We lastly took a chance on the Stir-Fried Five Spiced Tofu with Chives ($14.95) from the vegetable section of the menu. Considering the ups and downs we'd had during the meal, it was neither here nor there. The slivers of tofu are firm and meaty, with a vaguely smoky flavor but not a whole lot else going on. Not bad, but not great.

The potential is certainly there, but from the entrees we tried it just wasn't quite met. Is it the best Chinese food in Midtown? I don't doubt it. The best vegetarian Chinese food in Midtown? Quite possibly. But are their vegetarian dishes as good as the others that made them famous? Not so much as I'd hoped. On the bright side, it may be worth a bit more further investigation, and the string beans alone will at least make your trip worthwhile.

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