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Nov 4, 2007 01:56 PM

China Village Chowdown - 11/4/07

Forty (!!) hounds gathered at this fabled Sichuan restaurant in Albany today with one purpose - to put a new kitchen through its paces by testing out old favorite dishes and sussing out new ones.

Melanie had us divide into two "teams" named after cities in Szechuan province (Chongqing and Chengdu), each comprised of two tables of ten. Each team coordinated its ordering in order to have as little overlap as possible.

We began with a common set of cold dishes:

#2 Spicy conch
#4 Spicy beef tendon
#8 Homestyle chicken
#13Widow spicy diced rabbit
off menu - Shrimp with mustard sauce
off menu - Fresh green beans with garlic sauce

My table (Chongqing table B) also had the following:
#45 Twice-cooked pork
#56 Steamed Spare Ribs with 5-spice ground rice
#122 Cumin Lamb
#150 Charred stir-fried cabbage
#192 Zha jiang noodles
#214 Lamb dumplings
#216 Sesame flat bread
#217 Water dumpling with hot oil sauce
Off menu: water boiled eel
#31 Flower bean curd
#78 Chongqing chicken wings
off menu (I think... I can't find it) Westlake fish soup with 1000 chilis

A poll at the end revealed the favorites to be the Westlake fish soup (by a landslide) followed by the Chongqing chicken wings and the lamb dumplings.

I have to run... will post more details later... but wanted to get the dishes' names up now so that my team can post while tastes and textures are still fresh in their minds.

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  1. Big thanks to everyone who organized this best chowdown ever!

    I was at Daveena's table and tasted all she listed, plus a few bites off other tables.

    My favorite dish of the day was charred stir-fried cabbage. The humble name is deceptive: the cabbage is charred so that sweetness emerges from the caramelized edges, and the combination of that sweetness, chili spice, crunchiness, and slipperiness made this dish memorable. It's a nice lesson in how a single ingredient can yield so much flavor.

    Westlake fish soup was as good as ever. Fish comes in broth topped with a cover of chilies, which impart lots of roasted chili flavor but little heat, letting the fish and its broth shine through.

    Twice-cooked pork, a Sichuan standard made from pork belly that's smoked, sliced, and stir-fried with leeks or green onions, was also excellent. The sauce was spicy and sweet, and the pork was cut thinly to yield floppy strips that were meaty and fatty in every bite.

    My final favorite was water-boiled chicken, which our table didn't order but we tried from the generosity of other tables. I didn't get much of it, but I really liked the red-chili-oil based sauce with maybe some vinegar, peanuts, and what else? Hopefully someone who tried more of it could describe it better.

    I wanted to love the zha jiang noodles, but the handmade noodles were too soft and not chewy enough for my taste, and the sauce lacked the smokiness and dark, molasses-y sweetness in other versions I've tried.

    Great meal! Including tip, $21 per person at our table.

    16 Replies
    1. re: david kaplan

      Sorry that I could not be there. The correct name for the famous fish soup is
      "West Style Spicy Fish Fillet" (Not "Westlake")
      and it is #124 on the menu.

      1. re: Joel

        Thanks for the correction, Joel. My notes were a little messy, and item #124 is a little smudgy on my copy of the menu. The fish was beautifully tender and tasted of shao xing wine. I loved the texture of the fish against the texture of the cellophane noodles. And oh, the broth was delicious.

        My other favorite dishes were the twice-cooked pork, the chongqing chicken wings, and the flower bean curd. And the cabbage. The twice-cooked pork was was just like the best bacon ever, tweaked with a little sugar and spice, and cooked in a way that gave you both the nearly crisp chewiness of the meaty parts and the melting tenderness of the fatty parts. The chongqing chicken wings were fried beautifully and tasted mostly of Szechuan peppercorn. The flower bean curd was a first for me (and for other people at my table who have always only had sweet "dou hua" preparations) - the ultra-tender bean curd was interspersed with filets of fish and covered in red chili oil (that was surprisingly not that spicy). I found the bean curd really soothing after a meal full of intense flavors. Also - while this was not intentional - I liked the symmetry of beginning the meal with the West-style fish (fish and mung bean noodles) and ending it with the dou hua with fish (fish and soybean curd).

        The one major disappointment was probably the steamed spare ribs with 5-spice ground rice - I didn't love the texture, and it was either bland, or the seasonings were too subtle to hold up against the other, more aggressively seasoned dishes we were eating. The zha jian mian was a little disappointing, for the reasons david kaplan listed above.

        I enjoyed the flavor of the cumin lamb, but was surprised by the texture (tender from a cornstarch marinade). I was expecting crusty, caramelized bits of lamb - this was good, but not what I was expecting. Melanie mentioned something about having had lamb skewered on toothpicks... I'd love to know the name of that dish.

        1. re: daveena

          Sam Lok / Z&Y in Chinatown presents its cumin lamb on toothpicks -- except when they don't. Consistency is not Z&Y's strong point.

          1. re: daveena

            Here's my ancient post on the version of gristley, crusty cumin lamb GRILLED on toothpicks.
            I didn't have a chance to look at the menus when we were in the restaurant to see if it's still offered. I wish I'd tried the lamb you ordered, as I haven't been a fan of it in the past for the soft texture and wimpy seasonings, and would have liked to just see if it's the same.

            Oh, and given our pre-lunch exchange about the lamb dumplings, did you order them in any special way or just go with stock?

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              I tried asking for a less gamy, more oniony dumpling as you had recommended - he looked at me like I was nuts and said there wasn't really any way to do that. Anyway, people at my table seemed to enjoy them, so maybe they toned down the gaminess since the last time you had them. I thought they were good, but they didn't live up to my #1 lamb dumpling of all time (101 Noodle Express in Alhambra) - I think the meat might not have been fatty enough. Also I'm a little lamb dumpling-ed out because I made and froze a bunch of manti in order to use up dumpling wrappers from Yuen Hop that I've been experimenting with. By the way - fresh dumpling wrappers do *not* make very good cannoli shells when fried :)

              1. re: daveena

                I liked the dumplings mainly because they *were* less gamey than other versions I've had elsewhere. There were also lots of onions or leeks, which added a nice maybe he made it happen after all.

                1. re: daveena

                  I would have liked to have seen that! Sorry to have put you through that, in any case, good to get up to date on the state of lamb dumplings here. But now we have to order them again, given Dave's comments.

                  And, thanks for carrying out my mental experiment, another of my bad ideas.

              2. re: daveena

                the cumin lamb is disappointing, the style one wants is the crunchiness of the dish called Szechwan Style Spicy Beef, but with lamb and cumin.. they make it in this style at a place in New York called Little Pepper. BTW the beef dish I just mentioned is excellent. I tried it last night it is 110 on the take out menu.

            2. re: david kaplan

              here's part two of my favorites and their images ... chongqing chicken wings and the charred stir fried cabbage. And it was such a deal!

              1. re: gordon wing

                oops! here's the stir fried cabbage photo .....

              2. re: david kaplan

                I was at the table with Daveena and David.

                Like David, my top pick was--strangely--the cabbage. I didn't expect to be wowed by a veg dish at all--I'm much more of a pork girl, but the caramel blended with chili was unbelievable. I think I had thirds or fourths--more than my fair share.

                Other than that, I liked the lamb dumplings much more than the flat-tasting pork, and the chicken wings were quite good. I also really liked the spicy water boiled eel, cut in very thin strips--it almost looked like eggplant. I tried a beef dish in the same preparation at another table, but preferred the eel.

                As a general note, I don't have much experience with Szechuan dishes and didn't know what to expect. I feared that it might be too hot, but the heat was a lot like an earthquake or a thunderstorm that you can hear rolling in from far away and drawing nearer--first the spice bit the tip of my tounge, then a bit in the middle, and then warmed the back. It was very spicy but not painful or harsh--just wonderful.

                After, some of us made it to Sketch. I had a cinnamon ice cream with poached pears and salted caramel. The cinnamon ice cream was the best I've had--I expected a bitter or harsh note, like the cheaper versions I've had, but it was warm and even.

                Thanks to the organizational genius who planned this, especially Davenna who had some great, well-researched picks.

                1. re: pane

                  I heartily second your choice of the eel at CV and the ice cream at Sketch. I don't thinkl the eel was cut into julienne. I think these were elvers -- juvenile eels which the Spaniards call "anguillas". This was the dish that I overindulged in. The other standouts for me was the twice-cooked pork and the charred cabbage, although Daveena's selections were all in some way memorable.

                2. re: david kaplan

                  I think you must mean the Organic Chicken in a red oil spicy sauce -- the four "water-boiled" dishes were beef, fish, eel and pork kidney -- the table captains coordinated so that each table had a different one.

                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                    That must be it. Glad to know for my next visit.

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      Did anyone try all four of the water-boiled preps? This can also be made with chicken, pork, or tripe. I missed the beef one, but of the three, I think I liked the fish the best with brighter flavors.

                    2. re: david kaplan

                      wow..really sorry to have missed this one; was flying home from vacation while you all were enjoying...but had to pipe in to say I recently tried that charred cabbage, and loved it! Can't wait to get back and order it again...

                      Thanks to all for the reports!

                    3. daveena, melanie, lembert, bryan et all .... thanks so much for your efforts in organizing one of the best ever chowmeals! so many good flavors and so much good company!
                      here are some of my favorites and images of same .... homestyle chicken,spicy beef tendon, lamb dumplings and the flower bean curd .... end of part one.

                      1. Thanks to all who helped to get this organized. It was the most interesting chowdown that I have attended. I have been to China Villiage 5 or 6 times before but this time I found some new dishes I really liked:

                        Chicken in a red oil spicy sauce
                        Tea smoked duck (even better if less salty)
                        Hand-cut noodles with seafood
                        Eggplant with shrimp (the first time they served us it was too salty but after they were informed, they redid the dish with much less salt and it was great)

                        I also really enjoyed seeing the rock cod soup cooked with about 50 roasted red chilis on top. The taste was nice too but I thought the presentation is what made it exceptional.

                        I'm also glad I could go since there wasn't enough room at first.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: average

                          Good to meet you, and thanks for posting from our table. This is what I was hoping for in planning this event, that even those who had been to CV numerous times would find something new to love . . . or not . . . but at least we would try new things and get out of our ordering ruts. At first I thought there was going to be a rebellion at our table when some of those who've eaten at CV many times couldn't order their favorites.

                          I liked the eggplant with shrimp in claypot, basically the traditional fish-flavored eggplant with the addition of some prawns. While the shrimp were cooked perfectly and picked up the lovely seasonings, I didn't think they melded well with the eggplant. I think I'd order it w/o shrimp next time for myself.

                        2. Thanks for getting the thread started, Daveena!

                          I was the captain for Chengdu table B. We ordered:

                          #104 Duck in beer sauce
                          #139 Traditional Eggplant in spicy sauce
                          #166 Loofa with prawns
                          #171 Chengdu prawns
                          #217 Water dumplings with spicy sauce
                          #108 Spicy boiled beef
                          #192 Zha jian noodles (transliterated differently on the menu)
                          #216 Sesame flat bread
                          From the specials board:
                          Organic chicken in red oil sauce
                          Crispy fried chitterlings

                          The fun really started when people started going from table to table clutching their rice bowls and begging bites from other dishes. At one point David traded us his table's leftover cumin lamb for our table's chicken! In theory, the other Chengdu table was supposed to share tastes with us, but in practice, they scarfed down every bite themselves.

                          My surprise favorite was the water-boiled beef -- having heard horror stories about this being the hottest dish in the Sichuan cuisine canon, I've always avoided it. But it was delicious, and not *that* spicy. I can eat a whole order of the water dumplings myself, and mopped up the garlicy sauce with my sesame bread. The loofah was delicate yet flavorful, and provide welcome respite from the sea of red oil and chile pods spreading across the table.

                          Our table's tab came to $168 before tip -- $20 each with a 20 percent tip.

                          Thanks to my tablemates for their help in ordering and their excellent company! And thanks to Melanie for inspiring and leading us.

                          9 Replies
                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                            The water-boiled beef is probably one of the best second day dishes (served over fresh white rice) I've ever had. It seems to triple in taste

                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                              Our table was the only one that *didn't* order the chicken, though after we traded and got the chicken from Ruth's table, we somehow ended up with chicken from Melanie's table too! I really liked the sauce - although we couldn't figure out exactly what was in it.

                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                Hmmm...our table ended up with no pork dishes (except the chitterlings). Clearly a mistake on my part. I wanted to order a couple of them, but then Lambert's table ordered them and didn't share! I went over to try the pork shoulder, and there was literally nothing but two completely picked clean bones in the bowl. I can only assume it was good!

                                The twice-cooked pork belly is definitely on my list for my next visit.

                                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                  It wasn't that we at Lambert's table didn't share, Ruth, it was just that other scavengers came over and got some before you made it over!

                                  1. re: JasmineG

                                    Yeah, but we were your team mates -- you were supposed to share with us first!

                                    But let's blame it all on Melanie's table!

                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                      Ruth my fellow team member, I think we need to set ground for the next time. I did not get to table hop either, so I had get feed back from our table mates for input.

                                      As table hosts both Soup Noodles answered question and had discussion of the next round.

                                      I still have a list of dishes I need to try on my next visit. Which may have to be a while since I now need to lose weight before my next Doctor visit.

                                      We were too busy being a host and did not get to visit as quickly as we like.

                                      In defense of Melanie she did not table hop or was too quick for me to see.

                                  2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                    Our table shared with all comers, sorry you were too slow in arriving. The other tables were too quick for you. Also it was a small piece and the bone was at least 15% of the piece.

                                    But I will take the blame. We did not order any shrimp dish and I did try any of them either. So there is always next time.

                                  3. re: Ruth Lafler

                                    Thanks again to all the organizers for their Herculean efforts in accomodating everyone - it was a resounding success! It was inspiring to be amongst so many Hounds.

                                    I was at Ruth's table and everyone was patient enough to let me document our dishes before descending upon them like locusts, albeit polite ones. You will find these photos here:


                                    Of the cold appetizers, my favorites were the spicy beef tendon and the green beans.
                                    Of the main dishes, the spicy boiled kidney/beef/fish with napa cabbage, traditional eggplant, and #67 dry fried chitlins with celery (from Chengdu Table A) were standouts. The zha jiang mein was really tasty too (if a little shy of cucumber) and I found the chewiness of the homemade noodles perfect.

                                    I think when coming here next, I would be mindful of ordering a nice balance of spicy and non-spicy dishes. I definitely want to try the fish/bean thread soup and the flower tofu dish...

                                    Ruth made the astute observation that the "Classic" dishes on the menu were likely Americanized, which is a nice way of distinguishing the 'old Gold Mountain favorites' from the 'down-home-old-country' grub.

                                    After lunch, a 50-50 cup of lime granita and chocolate ice cream from Sketch was the icing on a very spicy cake. Thank god that stuff melts or there wouldn't have been room for it.

                                    It was a pleasure to meet so many Hounds - here's to future Chowdowns!

                                    1. re: crispypork

                                      Great pictures, crispypork! I started salivating while looking over all the dishes again!

                                      I too was at Ruth's table. Of the dishes we ordered, my favorites were the spicy boiled beef and the organic chicken dish, but truly, everything was delicious. The vegetable dishes we ordered were surprisingly good. I loved how fresh the loofah was, and we all concurred that the eggplant dish had excellent texture (not too mushy and slimy as it ends up at many other places).

                                      Other standouts for me: the one bite of cumin lamb I got (thanks to David for the trade!), the super garlicky sauce on the water dumplings, and the nice chewiness of the zhajiang mian (the sauce itself was just okay.)

                                      All in all, a knock out meal. It was fun to meet so many new hounds and to table hop in search of morsels to beg.

                                  4. Thank you, Melanie, Daveena, Ruth, Lembert, Bryan. This was my first Chowdown and I hope the first of many to come.

                                    I was at Melanie's table, but was able to try most of Daveena's table's picks as well. I was most impressed with the classic Sichuan dishes:
                                    - twice cooked pork/fish
                                    - tofu flower fish
                                    - cumin lamb
                                    - Chongqing fried chicken

                                    It seems Ruth's table had "Chengdu Prawns" -which I have not had before. What was that like? Was it stir-fried? What were the seasonings?

                                    Finally, sorry to be a stickler for details, Chongqing is no longer a city in the Sichuan province - it was carved out a few years ago (rumored as the reward for supporting the Three Gorges Dam) to form its own special administrative zone - similar to Beijing and Shanghai.

                                    Thanks again, everyone. I am so full (I think the bread grew in me) that I am skipping dinner...

                                    4 Replies
                                    1. re: Maple

                                      The Chengdu prawns are similar to the Chongquing chicken wings: a salt&pepper type coating, dry fried with an equal number of dried chile pods -- you literally dig through the pods to unearth the prawns. The coating on the prawns is reddish -- I don't know if that's because there's chile in the coating or if they just pick it up from the pods during frying.

                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                        Do they stiil fry them in the shells? I wasn't the biggest fan of that.

                                        1. re: SamuelA.L.

                                          Yup. That's the way I've always had s&p type preps.

                                      2. re: Maple

                                        Thanks a bunch for helping out at our table. You picked your seat well, strategically located to keep an eye on what was served at our teammate's table! I'm especially glad that you found a savory douhua dish to your satisfaction, since just minutes before we'd been lamenting this style's absence from local menus. Now I think we need to go back for the liang zhang pi ("double skins", #1 Hot and Cold Salad on the menu) that Mrs. Yao described for us!

                                        For myself, I had a handful of nuts and some cranberry juice last night. Didn't feel that full, but was not hungry again before calling it a night. I do agree with Ruth that the spicing has been toned down. When the original chef left, I felt that some dishes were too brutal in heat, compensating for lack of finesse. Now, I could use more chili in some of the dishes, such as the water-boiled kidneys. I think Mrs. Yao described the style of cooking as Sichuan cuisine with a Shandong touch.