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Szechuan Bay dinner, March 18 2007

I went out with a large crew to Szechuan Bay in Teele Square to try out their wares. I talked a little bit with the owners -- they're from Shanghai, got their engineering degrees in Beijing and Shanghai, then came to the United States. Apparently the owner has managed to coax an Imperial Palace-grade chef who used to work for Sichuan Gourmet (the Framingham one, not Sichuan Garden) to come here and work for him.

The initial appetizers were quite promising ... scallion pancakes were ordered off menu and had a pleasant crunch and nice scallion flavor. Five flavored beef (Wu-xiang Niu-rou, #14 on the menu) was roast beef like my mom makes. Tofu with preserved egg (Song-hua-dan ba dou-fu, #17) was chunks of silken tofu with stinky preserved duck egg, and surprisingly popular at the table (stinky duck egg is kind of an acquired taste, sort of the Chinese blue cheese). Fresh bamboo shoots with spicy sauce (xiang-you sun-jian, #19) was delivered in a nice lethal red sauce and dan dan noodles (#21) was similarly tangy and spicy.

However, the starters got ordered with a small subgroup of the final party of 15 present. The full group included only one other Chinese, and a few children, and I think that might have been a miscalculation, because they put the kid gloves on for the rest of the courses. Not that there wasn't flavor, and not that people didn't seem to like it, but the general sense that I got was that the things that should have been spicy (la) or Sichuan-peppercorn-numb (ma) weren't really enough of either.

We got the house special duck (shi-fu xiang-ya, #1), offered in chunks with bones in, not bad assuming you got a chunk with some meat on it. The fresh fish in house special sauce (chuan-rong xiang-la yu-pian, #3) was spicy and flavorful, and a mild fish inside (perhaps coated with cornstarch or something?). Lamb with hot and spicy sauce (zhi-bao yang-rou, #4 and oddly also listed as #77 without a spice warning) was in a foil wrapper (hence zhi-bao or paper-wrapped), a little gristley and a little hot. The Le Mountain Spicy Chicken (ge le-shan la-zi-ji) was bone-in-chunk (which I guess is country style in the Old Country), was decent but again a bit short on flat-out heat compared with the likes of Sichuan Garden.

We also wound up with jumbo shrimp with mashed garlic sauce (suan-er hui da-xia, #56, I might be misreading character #3) which disappeared before it got to me. Lamb with scallions (cong-bao yang-rou #78) is reliable and like Qingdao Garden, has a nice blend of scallions and onions (the more allium members in this dish, the better as far as I'm concerned). Beef in spicy chili sauce (shui-zhu niu-rou, #80) was underspiced, both in the ma and the la component, though this did let you appreciate that there was a nice complex blend of flavors going on underneath, with elements of black bean, soy and garlic. Chicken with broccoli (jie-lan ji, #99) offered no surprises and was decent. "Ants climbing the tree" (ma-yi shang-shu, #117) was a bit heavy on the cellophane noodles (fen-si) and a bit short on meat and heat. The stir fried pea pods (suan-chao dou-miao #119) and baby bok choy (chao shanghai bai-cai, #130) were solid, with almost enough garlic :-) Mapo Tofu (#122) again had a nice complex blend of black beans, leeks and sauce, but I could have used more ma and more la.

Because I called in advance warning that a group of 15 was coming, the owners made arrangements (at my request) to make tang yuan available. Unfortunately, it wasn't quite everything I was hoping for, mostly in the broth (interesting decision to put chopped ginger in the broth).

The proprietors are very nice and very interested in trying to make this thing work. I was happy enough or intrigued enough with enough things on the menu that I think I'm going to return with a smaller group of chili-heads, chat up the proprietor and the chef beforehand and see if they can deliver. Stay tuned.

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  1. It's a shame they won't make dishes spicy. I've only had one spicy dish that seemed right, and that was the fish in pickled peppers. I think they had no choice but to make that one spicy. It seems like they're overthinking things, giving what they think I want instead of what I firmly express and almost plead for. I understand that most Americans can't eat authentically spicy Szechuan, but if someone asks for it they should deliver.

    But otherwise everything's been good. I think you're the first one of us to get the spicy bamboo shoots, congratulations!

    1. I feel the same way about this place too. I think it's fine for homey sichuan-style cooking, but not as good as more refined places like Sichuan Gourmet.

      1. As I said, stay tuned. The big group, the largely white crowd and the white kids at the table, combined with the fact that with a group of 15 very hungry people, I did not have a chance to chat up the wait staff or the owners until after we'd eaten did mean that I couldn't ask specifically for the real deal. The owner was very interested in making things the way we want them (and interestingly, said that he's been seeing a lot of business lately where people have been comparing the relative virtues of his place vs. the other Sichuan places in town), so we'll see if I can get the real deal with a small group of the faithful, ordering all the lethal stuff.

        Plus he's got crispy squirrel fish. Yum!

        As far as the spicy bamboo shoots, I simply asked the waitress what the difference was between #19 and #20 which is the house special sauce bamboo shoots. She replied (in Chinese) that one was hot and one wasn't. I said, "I want the hot one." And hot was what I got!

        One big thing missing from the menu: chili-oil wontons (hong-you chao-shou). They turn up in soup but not in red oil. I'll have to talk to the owner about that.

        I presume that if this chef really did work at Sichuan Gourmet, really did work in big hotels in Beijing, and really wanted to open his own place in New York, that he can deliver the goods if he's asked properly. Alanr reported on the place last week; he's a friend of mine who often takes part in my Sichuan outings. He was impressed that he got something pretty close to the real deal.

        Will report more when I get a chance to get back there.

        4 Replies
        1. re: Dr.Jimbob

          I really don't think it should matter if you had a "largely white crowd." The other Szechuan places I like don't seem to dumb things down for me because I'm not Chinese, and I wish this place wouldn't either. It's a shame, because Szechuan Bay's food is pretty good, and very close to me for delivery. But I swear, I'm never going to get the spicy bamboo shoots, no matter how much I beg! Maybe I need to have a Chinese friend call for me next time. :-(

          1. re: MrsCheese

            Well, I went back tonight for another try at dinner, this time with alanr (his review is in the other Szechwan Bay thread in this board). Figured out a few things this time 'round, one of which is that the spicy bamboo shoots are actually the ma-la sun-si (#20 on the menu; they have the spicy star on the wrong dish). This time they were quite hot and actually had a nice sprinkling of sichuan peppercorn to boot. Very nicely flavorful.

            The entrees this time around were more mapo doufu, more boiled beef (shui-zhu niu-rou), the three-pepper chicken (san-jiao ji-ding) and stir fried Sichuan pickled beans with ground pork. Very very good this time around -- I made it clear to the waitress that we wanted the real deal, and we got lots of lovely hua-jiao goodness in the beef and the doufu, and more than enough heat also. Not quite lethal the way the Popeyes-on-crack chicken at Sichuan Garden can be, but damn good, and still with those lovely undercurrents of garlic and black bean sauce that make the dishes genuinely interesting.

            The chef turns out to be from Deyang in Sichuan Province. And it appears that he is genuinely concerned about turning off diners by making it too hot. So I think the key is to ask for the real deal, make it clear you want the real deal and can handle it, and then make plans to get ice cream afterwards in Davis Square.

            1. re: Dr.Jimbob

              Really appreciate your well thought out posts on this place.

              Sounds as if someone could convince the chef that a group would have no problem with the spice level, it might be a great place for a CH dinner.

              I know the last time I went to Anise (which I love), they made the dan dan noodles less spicy because they had a complaint (understandable, but disappointing to us). I totally appreciate listening to the customers, but I think that inconsistency affects a regular fan base. It's a really hard line to walk as a restaurant owner.

              1. re: Dr.Jimbob

                explains why my "house special sauce" bamboo shoots were hot. love the pork thigh. dates were a great addition. asked the owner about wontons in chili oil and was told "order wontons and ask for them in chili oil"

          2. Ants climbing the tree is a Shanghaiese dish, correct? Were there more Shanghai elements to the menu...perhaps braised pork shoulder <droooool>

            4 Replies
            1. re: tamerlanenj

              Ants climbing a tree is a Sichuan dish.

              1. re: tamerlanenj

                Ants climbing the tree (ma-yi shang-shu) is something that I saw in restaurants in Hunan and Sichuan provinces in China. Not 100% sure of the provenance, but the spicy nature identifies it as definitely not a Sichuan dish.

                The owners are Shanghainese, but have opted to exploit the talents of their Sichuan chef. There are some Shanghai things on the menu (the most prominent thing that I noticed was lion's head meatballs), but the proprietor didn't react to that suggestion like it was the strong point of the menu.

                1. re: Dr.Jimbob

                  "Not 100% sure of the provenance, but the spicy nature identifies it as definitely not a Sichuan dish."

                  Is that a typo -- do you mean the spicy nature as not a Shanghainese dish?

                  1. re: limster

                    Oopsie -- meant ants climbing the tree is definitely not a Shanghai dish. Sorry 'bout that.