off menu items @ Rice Garden, Washington Sq., Brookline
The kitchen at Rice Garden is willing make any Sichuan dish given a day or two advanced notice, even if it's not on their menu. In particular, they do require advanced notice for fish dishes, so that they can get fresh fish. There's no secret handshake or anything, just tell them the dish you want. Had a number of off menu items at a banquet there recently, most were suggested by the chef, the remaining one or two being Sichuan dishes that I had a craving for but weren't on their menu:
Spicy numbing tripe was an outstanding dish, even if it seemed a little mild for Rice Garden, a subtle point of heat and peppercorn complexity with a good sprinkle of sesame seeds, rather than the full on pool of red oil. This tripe was easily one of the best I've had in ages -- extremely satisfying density with just the right balance of chewiness and tenderness. Flavour was cleanly meaty, and took on the spice well, along with a vast cooling contrast of ciltantro.
Rice powder steamed pork is the only authetic sichuan-style rice-powder steamed dish I've had here, having sampled it in a couple of places (yet to try the one at the Taiwanese Chung Shin Yuan in Newton). An earthy mix of spices piqued by a little peppercorn (this dish is supposed to be mild), generous soft crumbs of toasty ground glutinous rice (this is where they get it right) and beneath, fat cuts of white pork. I was extremely pleased.
Squirrel fish is a classic dish from across China, not from the western province of Sichuan, but from the Eastern Jiangsu. This dish gets its name from the bushy squirrel tail like appearance of the fish after it has been skillfully deboned and scored, and cut to increase the surface area for battering and deep frying and then completed with a basic sweet and sour sauce; this is a dish that requires a serious amount of artful knifework. The version here was superior -- the extensive knifework on the fish was nothing less than a work of art, not a single piece of bone left, except in the tail and head, the fish cut into little fillets while retaining its integrity as a single piece that flowers into the anticipated squirrel tail appearance after the golden brown deep frying. Top that off with a garnish of napa cabbage cut to resemble a chysanthemum flower. I'm going to keep on looking, but I've yet to see a chef in the Boston area with this kind of knife skill. And that includes places where a single diner might spend more than a hundred for food alone.
Mashed garlic on the garlic steamed prawns was delicious, sweet and mellow and the shell-on prawns very fresh. I found the prawns perhaps a tiny bit oversteamed, but one of friends thought it just right.
In contrast, said friend considered the kung pao prawns (the real thing, not the Americanized version) a little undercooked, while I thought it was perfect, just succulent and ripping from fast high octane wokking. The sauce is a little more complex than I expected, with serious dabs of the fermented bean sauce as well as the regular regiment of dried chilli. Very well made, even though I personally prefer the simpler smoky intonation of dried chilli alone.
A fish soup was beautiful, a milky lake of clean rich flavour, snow white pieces of delicate fish, braced by pickled mustard greens and tomato, the soft tang of the latter ripe against the richness of the fish broth.
P.S. as many of you know, the framed pictures of exquisite-looking dishes on the right wall as one enters Rice Garden are actual dishes made by the chef, not from a magazine or cookbook. The squirrel fish is the top right one in the set of four that's further into the small dining area, so that should make it easier to order. If they're able, one of these days I'll probably do an "off the wall" banquet by requesting all 8 dishes featured in those framed photos.
If there's a substantial demand, I'll try and put something together in a few months (since I just ate there). But except for announcements, we really should do event planning off this site via email as per chowhound.com policy.
At the same time, I really want to emphasize that something like this at Rice Garden is easily accessible to the man in the street. There aren't any real barriers and it's easy to point to the photo and say "I'd like this." There's no special codeword or secret handshake, and there's hardly any language issue since they communicate just fine in English. These things are off menu anyway, so one doesn't have to fret about being able to read the Chinese only menu. Just bring a Sichuan cookbook or takeout menu if there's a particular dish you want but don't have memorized, or ask the chef to recommend stuff (I did mostly the latter, and requested a couple of personal favourites).