La Vie en Szechuan
414 East 33rd Street, New York, NY 10016 (b/n 5th and Madison; map); 212-683-2779; lavieenszechuan.com
Service: Prompt and congenial, if rushed
Setting: Close-quarters with fine tablecloths, well-dressed mostly-Chinese clientele
Must-Haves: Pork meatballs with green vegetable "soup," fried mushrooms with salted egg yolk, minced pork with pickled long beans
Cost: Most dishes for sharing are $10 to $30; $20 to $30 a person should feed or stuff you
Compare To: Cafe China, Legend, Hot Kitchen
Recommendation: Recommended with reservations: Some of the Sichuan classics disappoint, but there's some delicious, inventive food on the menu if you know where to look.
"You liked your food? That's good. Look for me next time you're here and I'll make sure you get our good stuff." So my server said on my first visit to La Vie en Szechuan, a ritzy-ish Chinese restaurant one block north of K-Town. Her recommendations for fried mushrooms and pickled long beans with pork didn't disappoint.
When I returned, I made sure to seek her out. "Why are you getting that fish dish with tofu," she scolded. "You're already getting an oily tofu dish. How about this instead?" She dug in her pocket for an iPhone photo of the night's special, and later on bolstered my vote for pork meatballs with preserved mustard greens ("That's awesome!") before proceeding to ask how I'd like my dishes coursed.
At La Vie en Szechuan, they work to take care of you. And a look around the dining room says why: The young, smartly dressed, nearly all-Chinese clientele look ready for their night out in K-Town, not for slumming it on Mott Street. Like Cafe China up north a few blocks, La Vie en Szechuan aims for something more upscale than the typical New York Chinese joint, and in setting, presentation, and food quality it largely succeeds.
What my server didn't share: Many Sichuan classics, the dishes we often look to as benchmarks for a restaurant like this, are the weakest parts of the menu. But if you order strategically around them you'll bear witness to some of the more interesting, unexpected, and yes—elevated—Chinese cooking in the city.
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 ($9.95) is gloppy and weak, lacking heat and the telltale numbing tingle of Sichuan peppercorns. An appetizer of cold duck tongues ($12.95) dressed in a chili oil vinaigrette is also wanting—the requisite flavors are present and balanced but subdued. Where's the fire, the sweat on my brow, the electric numbing-hot ma la magic that keeps me seeking out more Sichuan food? Not every dish needs this heat, but surely some?
I looked for it in the Chongqing chicken, here called Spicy Chicken with Fried Dough Twist ($15.95) and once again failed to find it. The 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.
A trip to the Chinese part of the menu held more promise, 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.
I eventually encountered the heat I was looking for in a humble plate of pickled daikon and cabbage ($4.95) 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. There's also surprising spark in Sliced Eggplant with Hot Green Pepper ($6.95), clean-tasting lengths of silky chilled eggplant topped with a piquant relish of fresh green pepper emboldened by more chili oil.
And yet even there I didn't find much tingling peppercorn beside my bites of spice. And that's okay. Because La Vie en Szechuan's strength isn't blowing your face off with heat or numbing it into submission; there are plenty of other restaurants to go for that kind of treatment. Instead, visit La Vie en Szechuan for its subtlety and ingenuity, the way chef Zhong Qing Wang reimagines tradition (from Sichuan and beyond) in new forms, with flavors beyond the expected.
Salted, cured egg yolk is used brilliantly on a plate of crisply battered-and-fried mushrooms ($18.95) 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) is 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?
I'm not sure where else in New York you could find meatballs quite like these: Three feather-light fists of ground pork ($16.95) 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.
I devoured Minced Pork with Pickled Long Beans ($11.95) 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.
Most of the Chinese clientele have picked up on the duality of what La Vie en Szechuan gets right and what it does not, and barring the occasional cauldron of chili oil you see around the room, tables in the know veer away from the slick red palette of New York's oily, spicy Sichuan staples. Instead, yellow potatoes with Sichuan pepper make a number of appearances, as does a 10-inch pie plate of "Royal" tofu in a thick, mustard-hued sauce. There are picture-perfect greens in dishes besides stir fried leafy vegetables, and whole fish in an array of forms. I'll be back for pumpkin with green pepper and shrimp with pickled chilies, or the restaurant's take on red-braised pork: a lumbering hunk of shoulder wobbly with fat.
It's worth noting that there are two menus at La Vie en Szechuan—three if you count the Chinese-only slip of paper affixed to the back cover of the dine-in edition. The sit-down menu is really a thick, lacquered photo book with two items to a page in high-saturation images. What it lacks in sensible organization and conciseness it makes up for in a helpful visual glossary to the dish descriptions' reticent prose. By contrast, the take out menu—the one you see online—is a dense, wordy pamphlet, easier on the eyes and more similar in form to the take out menus stuffed in your kitchen drawer. But it overlooks some of the menu's best dishes, such as those fried mushrooms, offering obligatory orange chicken and lunch specials in its place. Order delivery from La Vie en Szechuan if you must, but ask about what the menu doesn't include. (Those meatballs, fortunately, are there, though without the full-page photo to grab your attention.)
But this is a restaurant best experienced in person, for the fashion show that is the dining room on a Friday night and the banquet-style presentation of dish after dish. La Vie en Szechuan is in the midst of a challenging balancing act, with luxury and innovation set against the demand for reasonable prices and New York's expectations of what a midtown Sichuan restaurant "should" be. It doesn't always succeed, but when it does, there's electricity in the air.