While tasty, the vegetable dishes at Metro Cafe lack the irresistible kick of peppercorns and hot chiles, and seem intended as a more neutral counterpoint to meat-heavy Suchuan classics such as mapo tofu, hot pot, and cumin lamb.
'Sichuan' on Serious Eats
Your average Sichuan restaurant may turn out a decent, if not exceptional, plate of dry-fried cumin lamb, a dish that tastes pretty solid even when it's not that inspired. But at Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan, it's the must-order plate.
Far from being the Sichuan dead zone that it was even a decade ago, New York has become a virtual checklist of regional Chinese cuisines with the likes of Legend and Café China leading the Sichuan charge. Han Dynasty is a little different. The first New York branch of proprietor and Philadelphian Han Chiang's chain of a half dozen dazzlingly successful restaurants (five in Philly and one in Jersey), the restaurant rolled into town with what seemed like a busload of groupies already in tow. Some of that love is deserved at the New York location. And some of it isn't.
During a recent conversation with two of New York's most acclaimed Chinese restaurant owners and chefs, both of whom happen to hail from Philly, I heard nothing but unequivocal praise for Han Dynasty. They quipped that their (very famous) chef would hate the place "because it is so fucking good!" The East Village location hasn't been open long enough to warrant a proper review, but my impressions from a few early visits feel very promising.
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, the restaurant aims for something more upscale, and in setting, presentation, and quality it largely succeeds. 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—upscale—Chinese cooking in the city.
If La Vie en Szechuan has a specialty that sets it apart from all the other midtown spots, it's their ever so slightly unconventional versions of more classic dishes New Yorkers have gotten used to, such as these mushrooms.
There are many good things to eat at Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan. No shortage of people will tell you to get the crisp, cumin coated stir fried lamb, for instance. But save room for these beans; they were my favorite part of the meal.
At $16.95, the prawns are pricier than more common Sichuan offerings of noodles and dumplings, but the depth these prawns reach is worth the extra dough.
Hot Kitchen is as serious about the authenticity of its Sichuan cooking as its chilies are hot. And the restaurant lives up to its name through the liberal use of heat and spice.
Cafe China 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 the restaurant's excellent meat dishes; here we see that the vegetarian dishes are just as good.
Use "home cooking" to describe a restaurant's menu and you give it a kind of death sentence. The comfort food is familiar and well meaning—and ever so slightly boring.
That's a shame, because we all know at least one home cook who isn't like that at all—whose cooking is raw and unafraid, maybe a little off-kilter and all the better for it, who uses a few too many lumps of butter or extra licks of salt. What they lack in cheffy respect for balance they make up for in pure conviction, and you always hope they invite you over for dinner.
At Lao Cheng Du, chef Big Sister Zhu is that cook. And her fiery take on Sichuan cuisine is on the menu.
Recently, a branch of Legend opened up in the old Rack and Soul space on 109th off of Broadway (may it rest in peace). The Chelsea location of the restaurant is up there with Cafe China as my favorite hot-and-spicy Chinese in Manhattan. The Upper West Side location has nearly the same menu (albeit with slightly higher prices and lacking in the strange Vietnamese tack-on the downtown location has), all the way from the steamed chicken in chili oil to the beef and turnip casseroles. Here's how it stacks up.
There are cheaper, more casual Sichuan options elsewhere, but the combination of genteel surroundings and full-throttle food at Land of Plenty makes it a winning choice for a date.
Think of these cakes as delicately fried mochi, coated in sesame seeds and stuffed with a sweet potato filling that's custard-soft with a bit of chew. The jolt of warm sweet potato flavor is enough to shock you out of the ma la monotony that can sometimes accompany even great Sichuan meals.
I'm not sure what's meant by special sauce, but from what I've observed it's a blend of eight or so components ladled with methodical precision over floppy prisms of cool bean jelly. Chile oil, roasted chile, and a hint of Sichuan peppercorns dominate the dish, but the cold bean jelly really takes ma-la to the next level. The jelly is cool, clean, and incredibly refreshing, but when set against the fiery chile and numbing peppercorns it sends your taste buds into a 404 error. Something this hot and spicy just shouldn't taste so light and ethereal. But it does, and it puts out the fire just long enough to go for another bite. And another. And another.
What is it with great Sichuan restaurants opening in unlikely Manhattan neighborhoods recently? In November, we headed to Chelsea, where a run-of-the-mill Vietnamese restaurant had turned into the excellent Legend, at which we loved the Chongqing chicken and tofu-like "Tears in Eyes" and the liberal use of chili and Sichuan peppercorn on a number of dishes. And now in Midtown, we've found plenty to love about Cafe China.
The Chelsea Vietnamese fusion restaurant Safran has recently undergone a transformation into a bona fide, full-fledge Sichuanese joint, Legend. 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.
Apparently I hadn't been paying attention back in 2008 when first Ed Levine and then Frank Bruni extolled the virtues of Szechuan Gourmet. So when I discovered that there was authentic Sichuan Chinese food in Midtown, sitting in the middle of corporate-office-ville and just a hop-skip away from Times-Square-tourist-land, I was quite surprised, and quite excited.
When I first moved to the Upper West Side in the 1970's, the neighborhood Chinese restaurants were everywhere. Today, they're harder to find—which is why I was thrilled when Grand Sichuan International opened a spot uptown. Here are five of my favorite dishes.
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.