We're lucky to have a decent selection of Sichuan restaurants scattered throughout three boroughs. Now I’m hoping that Hunan will be the next break out regional Chinese cuisine. But with Grand Sichuan House and Bamboo Pavilion kind of nearby in Brooklyn, I rarely feel compelled to patronize any of the midtown joints. I finally got to Gourmet Szechuan, though, only because I was Koreatown realizing that I wanted spicy food of a different sort (plus the lines at Kunjip were intimidating).
It's been nearly a year since the New York Times decided to pay a serious visit, a marginally odd choice for the Bruni slot. And despite a copy of the review blown up at least seven times the original size adhered to the front window, the sit-down clientele was predominately Asian. Those waiting for takeout were not.
The most uncomfortable part of the meal was being privy to the ordering foibles of two middle-aged gentleman, mostly likely Mexican, who were seated directly next to me. They were getting thwarted in all kinds of ways, both through language and dashed expectations. The waitress really didn't want them to have lo mein and fried rice, they didn't want anything "picante" (hey, not all Latinos love spice) and they specifically wanted Pepsi, which they didn't have, juice was their second choice (also not available) so they settled for Coke. I witnessed a similar series of events go down at Grand Sichuan House once. Some people just want to eat American-Chinese food (which is on the menu at both) and have no desire to expand their culinary consciousness. That's ok. I imagine it could go both ways despite my never having witnessed Chinese people chancing upon a taqueria looking for hard shells and cheddar cheese. It's generalizing but I think Chinese (not Chinese-American) might be more inclined to eat only their own food.
We always order dan dan noodles, just because. In fact, we were intending to make a batch during the week but neither grocery store we tried (Stop & Shop and Wegmans) had ground pork, which is just strange.
Instead of my usual cold tongue or tripe, I opted for bamboo shoots. I had to get a vegetable in even if it involved a sea of chile oil. The peppercorn level in all of the dishes was what I'd call a medium, creating a pleasant buzz that still leaves your ability to taste intact. These crunchy strips were served with "fernbraken." If I didn't know better I would've guessed by the wetness and chew, that this mystery ingredient was a type of seaweed but if I'm correct it's part of a fiddlehead fern. I've mentioned before that fiddleheads creep me out; luckily, this dish was absolutely un-creepy.
A creature of habit, I wanted the dish that's bacony and smothered with softened oily leeks. I thought this would be #65 Stir Fried Chef's Sun Dried Pork Belly with Leeks but our controlling waitress, the same woman who wouldn't let our neighbors order both noodles and rice, steered me toward # 46 Stir Fried Fresh Pork Belly with Chili Leeks, instead. This was the version I had in mind with fat-striped thin rectangles of pork, though I imagine the chewier smoked version would've also been good.
I'm not as enamored by the crispy cumin lamb as others seem to be. I've seen it discussed at length on message boards and I'm fairly certain it received praise in the Times review. All the greaseless renditions I've tried are likeable but the dish feels more bar snacky and after a few nuggets a dry monotony sets in. We dunked ours in the slick pool of spicy remnants that had collected at the bottom of the nearly empty dan dan noodle bowl. For Sichuan lamb flavored with cumin, there's nothing better than the foil-wrapped seared version covered with a fistful of cilantro at Little Pepper.
I would be more inclined to head to south South Brooklyn or Flushing if the Sichuan urge grabbed me in the evening but I am jealous of midtowners with two Szechuan Gourmet locations for lunch. The Financial District is a paradise for cheap carby Chinese food—all the fried rice and lo mein you can eat with no judging—but even a Yip's apologist like myself needs a break every now and then.
Szechuan Gourmet * 21 W. 39th St., New York, NY