Slideshow SLIDESHOW: Legend Brings Serious Sichuan to Chelsea

[Photographs: Alice Gao]

Legend Bar & Restaurant

88 7th Ave, New York NY 10011 (between 15th and 16th; map); legendbarrestaurant.com
Service: A little slow and forgetful but polite
Setting: High end Chinese (only moderately tacky)
Must-Haves: Steamed Chicken with Chili Sauce, Tears in Eyes, String Beans with Olive Leaves Paste, Chongqing Diced Chicken with Chili Pepper
Cost: Appetizers start at $5.50, mains at $10.95
Grade: A-

About a year ago I wrote a review of Spicy and Tasty in Queens in which I lamented the dearth of hard-hitting, heavy-duty, full-throttle Sichuan food in Manhattan. I mean sure, Grand Sichuan in its many incarnations is tasty enough for what it is, but it never makes me wince with painful pleasure from fiery chili heat, nor does it make me squeeze my eyes extra-hard to try and restore some feeling in my mouth after the numbing effect from copious Sichuan peppercorns kicks in.

Let me quickly quote a passage from that Spicy and Tasty review as a reminder of what I look for in great Sichuan food:

The heart and soul of the Sichuan cooking style known as ma-la relies on the interplay of two key ingredients: fiery chili peppers (la) and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns (ma). Here's something, and it's important:

Sichuan peppercorns are not spicy. Rather, Sichuan peppercorns have a numbing, novocaine-like effect on your mouth, with a citrus-y, camphorous aroma.

When Sichuan food is at its best, the fiery heat of the chili pepper should hit your mouth first in an all-out frontal attack. Only after you feel you can take no more does the numbing effect of the Sichuan pepper start kicking in, calming your nerves, and getting you ready for the next bite. It's this constant up and down, the mini-adrenaline rush that comes with each bite, that makes Sichuan food so intensely exciting.

Little did I know that just a month before I went and checked out Spicy and Tasty, the Chelsea Vietnamese fusion restaurant Safran had undergone a transformation into a bona fide, full-fledge Sichuanese joint.

We decided to take a full-staff field trip to see how it stacks up to its other Manhattan competitors.

Long story short: It beats 'em all, hands down.

Despite some lapses in service and a rather forgetful waitress, when the food did start arriving, it came at the table in wave after wave of intense flavors, great seasoning, and no shortage of either chili heat or numbing Sichuan peppercorn.

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Famous Sichuan Pickled Vegetables

Famous Sichuan Pickled Vegetables ($5.95) are pungent and hot with a salty bite and funky sulphurous aroma and make a great counterpoint to some of the other slipperier cold appetizers, like the Steamed Chicken with Chili Sauce ($9.95) or the Beef and Ox Tripe in Chili Sauce ($7.95). The former is one of our favorites, with cold slices of moist steamed chicken in a punchy roasted chili and black vinegar vinaigrette, while the latter boasts a generous pile of not-too-tripey tripe. It doesn't quite achieve the transcendent crunchy-chew of the very best examples, but it comes very close.

If you're starting to hurt, Sichuan Cucumber ($5.95) is like a beacon of cool, refreshing crunch in a sea of chili heat. They come coated with a thin sheen of scallion oil.

Classic options like Dan Dan Noodles Cheng-Du Style ($5.50) and Pork Wonton in Red Sesame Oil ($5.95) are well represented, though the chili oil used in both dishes could do with more deep, roasted flavors. The wontons themselves were cloyingly sweet (avoid 'em).

Tears in Eyes

Much better is the Tears in Eyes ($6.95), which comes with a heat warning from both the menu and the waitress (over the course of ordering I had to confirm a half dozen times to our waitress that yes, we like our food hot). Surprisingly, the slippery chunks of tofu-like bean cake sauced with a roasted chili and black fermented soy bean sauce was not the hottest of the appetizers we tried, though it was one of the tastiest.

After the string of great appetizers, entrées were a bit more hit and miss, though when they hit—as with the Sichuan Spicy Cellophane Noodle ($10.95)—the results are superb. Be careful not to burn your mouth on their excellent version of the Sichuan classic "ants climbing a tree" with bits of minced pork clinging to stretchy bean-thread noodles softened in a chili and vinegar-based sauce.

Dry Sauteed String Beans with Olive Leaves Paste

Dry Sauteed String Beans with Olive Leaves Paste ($9.95) are chili-free with perfectly blistered green beans with a slight bite in the center coated in a mild sauce of minced pork and pungent olive leaves. It's an interesting if subtle variation on the version we're used to.

Other dishes weren't quite as succesful. Sautéed Homemade Bacon ($13.95) sounds so much better on the menu than in chewy reality, but plenty of smoky, flavorful leeks are worth picking through. One of my favorite dishes—Fried Lamb With Cumin ($15.95)—looks and smells great with crisp bits of lamb and plenty of cumin and Chinese celery, but it's decidedly lacking in basic seasoning. Pass the salt, please!

Sichuan Spicy Ma Po Tofu

Sichuan Spicy Ma Po Tofu ($10.95) is the yardstick by which I measure Sichuan restaurants. It's my favorite dish in the world. Legend's version doesn't rank too high on the authenticity scale, using pork instead of beef and a sauce flavored with fermented black soy beans instead of broad beans, but nevertheless, it's quite delicious. Purists will lament the overuse of cornstarch in the thick sauce and lack of chili oil on the surface, but there's no faulting its incendiary heat and perfectly textured silken tofu.

A surprise winner was the Braised Beef Casserole with Radish ($13.95). The Chinese version of beef stew pairs slightly gelatinous chunks of beef with meltingly tender radishes that have soaked up a not insignificant amount of the rich, flavorful gravy. A similar gravy is used to lesser effect in the Slice Pork with Rice Crust ($15.95) which features puffed fried rice cakes that arrive at the table with a snap, crackle, and pop. Eat up before it gets soggy.

Eggplant in Garlic Sauce ($9.95) is something none of us have ever seen before: the eggplant slices are coated in a cornstarch slurry before being deep fried. They have a perfectly crisp, crackly crust that stays crunchy even when tossed with their mildly garlicky chili sauce.

Chongqing Diced Chicken with Chili Pepper

If there's one thing I noticed here, it's that many dishes that looked like they were going to be crazy spicy were actually quite mild. Chongqing Diced Chicken with Chili Pepper ($16.95) comes with a mountain of roasted chili peppers, but rather than splitting them to release their fiery innards, the red chillies are left intact to impart just their toasty aroma to crisp-bordering-on-dry chunks of deep-fried marinated chicken sprinkled with a healthy dose of mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorn. Same goes for the Crispy Prawns with Aromatic Pepper Salt ($17.95). Ask for these guys in the shell and eat them shell and all to get the most of the textural contrast between crisp outer shell and juicy body.

See all the dishes in the slideshow above »

The atmosphere at Legend is also a step above the average Chinese restaurant in the city, though there's still an air of tackiness to its gold trim, gaudy lighting, and karaoke booth in the basement dining room. It'd be a great place to host a holiday party for chili fiends.

It's quickly and comfortably found itself at the top of my list for Sichuan food in Manhattan (anybody else with me here?). Whether it compares to the Queens restaurants will require some more tasting.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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