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Jun 12, 2009 10:00 AM

*new* Szechuan Gourmet report

Last night, ate at opening day of a new Szechuan Gourmet, 242 W56th between Broadway & 8th 212-265-2226 (and they say open till 11 PM weeknights, later on weekends!)

So, while ordering an interesting backstory emerged: there was hardly anybody there, just a few tables. We were seated between two tables of Chinese people, and given the attention they got from staff, we figured them to be insiders, and it turns out they were. I was trying to get the chicken with all the dry red peppers, but I wanted it bone-in, not the boneless that was on the menu. The waitress went to the kitchen to ask if they could make it, then came back and said "no"... but she couldn't leave it at that, she had to go and say that it could not be done the other way. So I had to point out that they used to do it with bones just a few blocks away at Grand Sichuan Intl back when it was open. At that point the woman at the next table leaned over and pointed across her table and said "he used to cook at Grand Sichuan". So, then they said a bunch of stuff in Chinese, and then I was told that this guy at the next table appreciated that I liked the bones, so he was going to go into the kitchen and show them how to do it... and he did!

So, I got my bone-in variety special made, and it was quite good. A bit different than I expected, slightly bigger chunks, it had less of the red peppers, and less of the Sichuan peppercorns, but it had a lot more aromatics, that licoricey sort of flavor, and a lot more of various other flavor nuggets; garlic, scallion, et al. The bigger pieces of chicken were beautifully fried. Moist!

Anyway... while waiting for that, I was talking to them and they said this new Szechuan Gourmet is actually a joint venture between the owners of Szechuan Gourmet, Grand Sichuan, and Wu Liang Ye (I admit I couldn't help think to myself "ah, the Triad!") so we kept talking and they'd ask my favorite dishes and I'd reply with the differences between versions at different branches, what was available where and why couldn't I find the krinkle kut french fries like they used to have at GSI 9th @ 50th, with the pickled vegetable seasoning somewhat akin to chinese black beans but different. They knew the seasoning, hadn't thought to put it on french fries, and were amazed at the level of detail that I keep track of menu items which are (or even had been) available various places. I in turn was perplexed that restaurant owners and chefs would unaware of the fanatic food communities.

So to start wrapping up as you are interested in the food, we ordered #13, #14, #16, #17, #94, #105, #109, and #113. The food was definitely Szechuan Gourmet inspired, but where SG on 39th is good, but so busy to me it's got a bit of a "dialed in, heavy food factory" (compared to GS East which I find sprightlier), this food I thought was a little better, more nuanced, smokey flavors here, aromatics there, more standout ingredients in the seasonings; they sent out unrequested a bowl of extra hot sauce which was a very garlicky fresh red relish with also a LOT of fresh cilantro in it: very good, and my "there should be more cilantro in everything" sentiment was shared by my neighbors, the girl and I said simultaneously "it makes everything seem fresher".

Oh, I was teasing about the numbers, those are (somewhat abbreviated) szechuan pork dumplings, chilled noodle with spicy sesame (nice sesame or is that peanut, but flavorwise too spicy), chef's szechuan pickles (best I've had in a long while, usually way over sour, these were fresh), spicy cukes (very good smoky spicy), wok tossed chicken (except special made), ma paul tofu (very tasty sauce, and it killed when I added the cilantro they gave me), shredded potato, and pan seared sea bass with hua jiao (might have enjoyed it more had it not been preceded by so many).

This branch on this occasion was definitely better, but I think I prefer the unexpected variations from a new kitchen to a kitchen that's been grinding the same dishes by rote for too long. Of note, I was told the chef who will ultimately be cooking here is now in China, not due back for 10 days, so right now chefs from other restaurants are filling in. Which means if you go for the next week or so, you will be getting a worthwhile experience (unique?) but whether it will be representative of what's to come can't be known; interesting to track, actually.

So, these nice folks themselves said they were from a chinese restaurant in NJ called China Chalet which I highly recommend on the basis that they were nice people who know food. But at their table were several chefs who I was told had cooked at various of the Manhattan restaurants we are all so familiar with, so it's apparently a small tight community (who knew?).

China Chalet
184 Columbia Tpke, Florham Park, NJ 07932

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  1. I just went there for lunch and had the Ma-Paul tofu. A bit heavier/oilier than I would have liked but still delicious. This was my first trip to any SG and I was definitely impressed.

    1. I can't thank you enough for all of this. Such a classic experience; the whole thing. I will try to get down there this weekend (this location is far more convenient for me than all the other places) and then again next month so I can do the before and after (chef from China arrives) comparison. This will be interesting. Looking forward to it! Thanks again!

      1 Reply
      1. re: nativeNYer

        Agreed. Great review/experience, acidity. Very enjoyable and entertaining to read.

      2. Thanks for the post. Very informative and interesting.

        I love the bit about the chef getting up and going to the kitchen to make your chicken on the bone dish! Great stuff!

        3 Replies
        1. re: NellyNel

          I got take-out yesterday and the girl at the front was still learning how to use the cash register so that took a bit of patience. All in all the food was ok. My cold noodles were very dry and so spicy that they really had no distinguished flavors. The Szechuan dumplings were very good though. Perfect balance between spicy and sweet. I'll be back to try some of their well-priced lunch menu.

          1. re: ukitali

            Lucky me- my old office was located within walking distance of the other SG and the new one is in Columbus Circle. I got a lunch special yesterday and so far so good. The girl taking the orders does seem very new at it, so I got the sense not to push it with special requests, and it didn't come with the pickled vegetables like it says on the menu, but I got a very satisfying lunch for around $8. This time it was #37 (Shredded Beef with spring onions), though in the future I will be checking out old favorites from the other location.

            1. re: TongoRad

              I've been back a few more times for take-out lunch, and I have a new favorite- #21 (Crispy Braised Tofu with Sliced Pork). It has decent enough heat when ordered as-is, but becomes really special when ordered extra spicy (as an unexpected added bonus they also really spiced up my accompanying hot and sour soup). I like this dish better than the Ma Paul Tofu, there is more texture variation (in addition to the tofu and tender pork there are also a bunch of shiitake mushroom caps added) and the flavor has just as much depth. I think it works better when you are only having one dish.

        2. Amazing report! I'm salivating right now.

          1. "The food was definitely Szechuan Gourmet inspired, but where SG on 39th is good, but so busy to me it's got a bit of a "dialed in, heavy food factory" ... This branch on this occasion was definitely better, but I think I prefer the unexpected variations from a new kitchen to a kitchen that's been grinding the same dishes by rote for too long. "

            Honestly, I think this says more about you and less about the kitchen since most people don't seem to find the cooking at SG "tired." Perhaps you're ordering the same dishes over and over?

            One solution is to change things up. I just went over to Menupages and checked. SG has 156 dishes on their menu not including specials. There are 70 entrees alone. *Seventy.* I'll bet you haven't had all of them. I'll bet you haven't had more than 10 of them. So to pronounce the kitchen as "tired" is a real stretch.

            "they said this new Szechuan Gourmet is actually a joint venture between the owners of Szechuan Gourmet, Grand Sichuan, and Wu Liang Ye"

            I'm wondering if perhaps you misunderstood them and that what they were saying is that the *staff* was drawn from those 3 places. Having three partners is potentially awkward since they can have different viewpoints. The other thing is that even in the unlikely event that they did team up I don't they'd use the Szechuan Gourmet name. Why give free publicity to a competitor? Besides, of the 3, Grand Sichuan International has the most name recognition. It's the biggest "brand" so they'd be more likely to use that name to take advantage of that.

            Anyway, congratulations on going there on opening night and posting the first review.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Bob Martinez

              Grand Sichuan may have had the most name recognition, but Szechuan Gourmet has 2 stars from Frank Bruni. Note the giant-sized poster of the review sitting in the window of the new restaurant. I'm just saying that from a business standpoint, I'd definitely use the Szechuan Gourmet brand. (I'm not necessarily disagreeing with anything else Bob said.)

              1. re: yenlee

                Interesting...I think Grand Sichuan still has more brand recognition, but you make a good point.