Spicy Chicken with Fried Dough Twist ($15.95)
Popcorn-sized chunks of chicken are admirably crisp but under-seasoned—though hats off for throwing in little snack chips "right from the supermarket" that turn the dish into a stoner's delight.
Duck Tongues with Chili Sauce ($12.95)
An appetizer of cold duck tongues dressed in a chili oil vinaigrette is also wanting—the requisite flavors are present and balanced but subdued.
Sichuan Pickled Vegetables ($4.95)
This dish of pickled cabbage and daikon is resplendent in tang and spice, one of the finer plates of Chinese pickles you'll find in New York. The daikon, more porous than Western radishes, lets the chili oil seep in a bit, which makes for a refreshing bite with a heat that lingers.
Sliced Eggplant with Hot Green Pepper ($6.95)
There's surprising spark in clean-tasting lengths of silky chilled eggplant topped with a piquant relish of fresh green pepper emboldened by more chili oil.
Minced Pork with Pickled Long Beans ($11.95)
I devoured Minced Pork with Pickled Long Beans by the spoonful—tangy beans tempered by sweet, meaty pork, chilies murmuring in the background alongside some garlic. When La Vie en Szechuan's food is good it's downright addictive, and this crunchy-meets-chewy dish qualifies.
Lamb with Chilies, Cabbage, and Vermicelli
A trip to the Chinese part of the menu held more promise for genuine heat, and a bubbly cauldron of lamb joints submerged in chili oil and topped with a raft of dried peppers certainly looked the part. But tasteless broth and overcooked lamb had us slurping glass noodles and raw cabbage out from the bottom of the bowl, leaving the rest behind.
If you're the type to judge a Sichuan restaurant by its mapo tofu, La Vie en Szechuan may give you some trouble, for its version is gloppy and weak, lacking heat and the telltale numbing tingle of Sichuan peppercorns.
Meatballs with Green Vegetable "Soup" ($16.95)
I'm not sure where else in New York you could find meatballs quite like these: Three feather-light fists of ground pork cooked to a gorgeous tenderness, full of all the homey, onion-y flavors of great meatloaf. They're served with what the menu calls "green vegetable soup," but what appears as more of a verdant sauce of finely chopped, lightly preserved mustard greens with buds of sweet osmanthus blossoms dotted about. It's comfort food meets fine restaurant technique—the sauce is clean and bright and delicate as the meatballs are rich and sweet.
Pearl Mushrooms with Salted Yolk ($18.95)
Salted, cured egg yolk is used brilliantly on a plate of crisply battered-and-fried mushrooms for something that's part tempura, part bar snack with tartar sauce. The dusting of yolk is just as good and interesting as the frozen, shaved foie gras you'll find at more expensive tables in Manhattan; one wonders why more Capital C chefs haven't picked up on the idea.
Bitter Melon with Black Bean Sauce ($11.95)
Resoundingly bitter but in its own way perfect, tender but still with some resistance to the teeth; a barely sweetened brown sauce tames the bite just so. Fine dining restaurants could learn from a dish like this, too; could a bitter melon negroni be in my future some day?