The Vegetarian Option: Excellent Sichuan Options at Café China
Like any other trend, food fads in this city are cyclical: just as your mom's bell-bottom jeans experienced a comeback in the mid-90s (this time around dubbed "flares"), so, too, do the culinary styles our parents enjoyed when they were our age return and become stylish again.
A few years ago, I began enthusiastically cooking and eating Sichuan Chinese food after reading writer Fuchsia Dunlop's excellent food memoir Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, an account of the time Dunlop spent in Chengdu, Sichuan province. When I mentioned to my parents that I had "gotten really into this kind of Chinese food called Sichuan," they both gave me a dumb look: Sichuan Chinese was the style of Chinese in New York in the '70s, when they first met, they told me. But when I was growing up, the Cantonese style reigned, and it was only recently, when Sichuan became fashionable again, that I had the opportunity to try it.
If the rebirth of Sichuan in New York brings places like Café China, which opened on 37th Street in 2011, to the city, then I'm all for trends. The restaurant is one of the city's better options for updated Sichuan food, as we discovered when we visited last year. In that review, we focused mainly on Café China's excellent meat dishes, but on a recent visit, I sampled several of the restaurant's vegetarian options.
An appetizer of Cold Noodles Szechuan Style ($6) was a classed-up version of peanut noodles: cool, springy wheat noodles were dressed with a smooth peanut sauce accented with just a touch of bright red chili oil, and topped with crunchy chopped peanuts, toasted sesame seeds, and sliced scallions.
A main dish of Stir-Fried Assorted Fresh Mushrooms ($15) was refreshing in its spareness: a deep bowl of slick, chewy mushrooms hiding a layer of sweet, crisp pea shoots, the funghi were only barely seasoned, allowing their earthy, mellow flavor to come through. Anyone who thinks that Chinese food is too salty or too saucy or too whatever would do well to try this super-simple, super-light, but super-satisfying dish.
The star of the evening was unquestionably a plate of Steamed Eggplant Szechuan Style ($13, pictured at top). Now, I'm not normally a fan of steamed vegetables, but my waitress recommended the dish, and her pick was spot-on. Batons of tender, creamy, sweet Asian eggplant sat in a rice wine-fragrant sauce, with an unholy amount of fried garlic on top. Tiny green flecks of a briny vegetable that I couldn't name crowned the dish; a server informed me that it was pickled mustard green shoots. The salty bites were excellent scooped up with warm, fluffy white rice.
About the author: Lauren Rothman is a former Serious Eats intern, a freelance catering chef, and an obsessive chronicler of all things culinary. Try the original recipes on her blog, For the Love of Food, and follow her on Twitter @Lochina186.