Monday, December 04, 2006

Best in Chow

Grand Sichuan
227 Lexington Ave.
(btw. 33th, 34th Street)
(4,5,6 to 33rd Street)
NY, NY 10016
Tel: 212-679-9770/9771


When I first moved to New York, a fresh-faced young grad in 1989, I made a whopping $13,500 annually as an editorial assistant at Penguin USA. Ah, so much promise, so many hopes and dreams. So little cash.

Like my non-trust-funded peers in publishing, I had little choice other than to subsist on Chinese food, ordering bountiful two-dollar quarts of Lo Mein pretty much every night. Back then my affinity for Chinese cuisine was poverty-driven. I could have eaten shredded newspaper for all I knew. The price was right, the shiny noodles nicely soaked up the booze I devoted most of my disposable income to, and there were often greasy leftovers to salve a painful hangover. It’s fun to reminisce, isn’t it?

Speaking of hangovers, I got one from too much Chinese food. For years I swore off the stuff entirely, emotionally and intestinally scarred from too many forced-feedings at those little neighborhood woks: you know the ones: a cook, a cashier, a freezer and a vat of boiling oil behind three inches of misty, bullet-proof glass adorned with a numbered, pictorial menu. Yes, after months of indulgence, I blew out my palate and fell face down in my pu-pu platter. I opened my fortune cookie that night, and it read: you’re fucked.

After a lengthy period of culinary rehab, however, I was back--and with both a more refined palate and a more adventurous diet than the one forged in the salty crockpots of my youth in Central New York. Thanks also to a, well, a modestly expanded food budget, I rediscovered the gastronomic pleasures of the Orient, from the white-coated waiters and high-end prices of Mr. Chow and Shun Lee Palace, to the dingy authentic Chinatown kitchens. Have the Wor Wonton soup at Hop Kee, or Dim Sum at Chelsea House and you'll know what I mean.

Today, when the question is “ni yao chi wufan ma?” my answer is yao!

That's all for another post. When talking about Chinese food in New York, we’re usually talking delivery. And today, I’m crowning a new champion: Grand Sichuan, in Murray Hill. It’s authentic and nicely spiced dishes add a newfound excitement to what has become the boring old idea of ordering in Chinese food.

For those of you not familiar with Sichuan (or Szechuan) cooking, it is the hot and spicy sister of the milder Cantonese offerings. Originating in the Sichuan Province, located in the hot, humid climes of southern China, Sichuan hallmarks include stir frying and ingredients like the Sichuan mala, or the “numbing pepper,” A fragrant, powerful, almost citrus-like spice, along with things like ginger and bean chili paste. Kung Pao chicken is an example of a popular Sichuan dish.

There are plenty of milder dishes on Sichuan menus as well, but, well, why would you bother? If you’re going to enjoy Sichuan cooking, go for the spice. The flavors offered by Grand Sichuan’s spicy dishes are intoxicating, yet not overbearing. You’ll feel the heat, yes, but not so much as to overcome other elements carefully balanced in these dishes.

We recommend the cellophane noodles with minced pork, thin, clear rice noodles, that take on both the frangrance and hue of the pepper and the flavor of the pork; Beef with snow peas and carrots, the meat pounded to softness and prepared with a dusting of Chinese rice flour that produces a rich gravy; and don’t miss the spare ribs in spicy sauce. Little pork ribs, almost Korean style in how they fall off the bone, served in a hot and peppery sauce with slightly poached celery and cut with soothing fresh cilantro.

From all we’ve seen and heard, dining in at Grand Sichuan leaves something to be desired service-wise. But if you’re dining in at a Chinese restaurant and critiquing the service, you’re missing the point, so just leave your 10-percent tip and get the fuck out of New York, there’s an Applebee’s waiting for you somewhere.

Spoon and me will almost certainly dine in at Grand Sichuan soon, if only to try their version of the authentic Sichuan torture, um, delicacy known as the “hot pot" (pictured above). The hot pot is the most famous and favorite dish in Chongqing. It was first eaten by poor, obviously masochistic boatmen on the Yangtze River and has now become the specialty of an obviously masochistic region. It involves gathering around a small pot of atomic, peppery soup base boiled over a fire (or in nyc, electric burner) into which you dip slices of raw meat, fish, bean curd and vegetables Shabu Shabu style, boiling them in the soup base. You then dip them again into a little bowl of special sauce before eating.

When Anthony Bourdain visited China on his excellent show, No Reservations, he sat around a hot pot with his guides and sweated like he was sitting on nails in a Sauna. Now that’s good TV!--F

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