Date Night: Land of Plenty, Sichuan Cuisine in Midtown East
Walk a few steps from Bloomingdale's and you enter Land of Plenty, a Sichuan restaurant in the former Mia Dona space on 58th Street. On your right, two men and two women drink Long Island Iced Teas and debate structured financing. On your left, several souls wait for takeout. Straight ahead the dining room opens in successive rectangles. The effect is a little like looking into a mirror reflected by a mirror. And much as you might like the way you look from one angle, Land of Plenty offers one specific type of Sichuan experience. There are cheaper, more casual options elsewhere, certainly, but the combination of genteel surroundings and full-throttle food makes it a winning choice for a date.
We started with the chilled noodles with spicy sesame peanut dressing ($4.95), tipping, tapping, and stirring the noodles to better mix in the white seeds and dark sauce, which evidenced not peanuts but pepper and vinegar. The oily heat comes slowly, but builds the more you slurp.
Land of Plenty calls them steamed crystal shrimp dumplings ($6.95), but, thanks to this handy guide, we think "har gow" might be a more accurate description. They were pillowy and plump, a soft, salty, shrimpy mass. "Eat, eat," our server urged. "Don't let them get cold." Good advice, as the translucent skin tended toward clammy when cool.
The stir fried five spiced tofu with green house chives ($15.95) was a vegetarian dish for carnivores. Lulled into relaxation by our appetizers, we were shocked us into alertness by our entrées. The chives squeaked like chatty celery, while the tofu smoked like Greta Garbo before the talkies. Thanks to the smoking. the tofu tasted somewhat of ham, showcasing a cured meatiness.
From the section of the menu titled "Plenty's," we selected smoky wok tossed diced chicken with thousand crispy chili and peanuts ($15.95), in part for the name. Chicken had been chopped and fried, and these Sichuan nuggets came out as crisp as the chilies, with more noise coming from the whole peanuts and chopped green peppers. "Don't eat those," we were warned about the shiny red carapaces. While you wouldn't want to eat the chilies by the shovelful, the tingly burn they bring bring to the chicken constitutes dish's raison d'être, so we couldn't fully heed this advice. (The chef plays variations on the familiar chicken-and-chili theme: there is also "smoked wok tossed chicken with chili, chili, chili," and, the night we were there, a special of less emphatically if more recognizably named chongqing diced chicken with chilies.)
Not everyone will appreciate the paternal care of the waitstaff, who hover close, attentively eyeballing chopstick-to-mouth activity. And yet one server looked at our plates and shook his head: "Too spicy for me," he grimaced. The food gave a fiery zing, but was also pungent and earthy and smoky and sour and vinegary, offering many things to many people. With its un-watered-down Sichuan cooking and refined decor, Land of Plenty is best for: a date without compromise.