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*new* Szechuan Gourmet report

acidity Jun 12, 2009 10:00 AM

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 http://www.gochineserestaurant.com/ch... 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

  1. d
    demigodh Jun 12, 2009 10:19 AM

    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. n
      nativeNYer Jun 12, 2009 10:34 AM

      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
        LeahBaila Jun 12, 2009 11:40 AM

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


      2. NellyNel Jun 12, 2009 10:35 AM

        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
          ukitali Jun 12, 2009 11:22 AM

          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
            TongoRad Jun 13, 2009 06:57 AM

            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
              TongoRad Jun 30, 2009 04:40 PM

              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. k
          kathryn Jun 12, 2009 11:53 AM

          Amazing report! I'm salivating right now.

          1. Bob Martinez Jun 13, 2009 09:54 AM

            "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
              yenlee Jun 13, 2009 11:36 AM

              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
                a_and_w Jul 26, 2009 08:39 AM

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

            2. r
              Renguin Jun 13, 2009 12:39 PM

              Its interesting that you said that there are just chefs filling in until the new guy from China arrives. I went to Sichuan Gourmet on 39th for lunch this week and I overheard the boss guy telling some people about a new location. I called him over to my table to find out more and was ecstatic to learn that it was going to be opening on 56th (I work on 54th on the west side). But he told me, "don't go for the first week or so, you might as well go get a burger or something, it will be better later". I didn't really know what he meant, I figured it was just a new restaurant getting off the ground. He didn't mention the new chef coming but that must have been the reason. If this is what the guy at GS said then I would think it will get even better with the new chef instead of worse. Any comments on how big the space is i relation to the 39th st. location?

              2 Replies
              1. re: Renguin
                acidity Jun 13, 2009 03:38 PM

                Cool, that is an interesting corroboration. The downstairs at the new branch that you walk into is quite small, maybe 8 tables or something. There is a whole floor dining room upstairs (ugh, i hate upstairs at restaurants) and apparently it has a very nice front window; I did not go up, but I did see there are trees outside. Here is an opening night photo from outside where you can see a little.

                I agree with the basic idea that a new chef has possibilities, but also that the flexibility and an excitement of a new place could bring out some flair from the old guard, while the daily grind could ultimately stultify the cooking. That's what I meant when i said it might be fun to track.

                1. re: Renguin
                  ddarko Jun 13, 2009 10:34 PM

                  Why wait? The cooking may get better but it's already very good. I stopped by today - Saturday - for dinner around 6 o'clock. There were two people finishing but the place was otherwise empty. During my meal, two people came down from upstairs and two additional people joined. That was it for customers. I dunno if the light traffic was representative or not but I do hope the place is busier or gets busier soon.

                  As for food, I had the hot & sour soup, the chef's szechuan pickles and the mapaul tofu. The soup needed some work, not quite hot, not quite sour but at least it wasn't sweet as it usually is at so many places. The pickles and tofu were fantastically and appropriately spicy.

                  I left with a takeout menu. I'm so glad to have Szechuan Gourmet open mere blocks away from where I live! Midtown West & the Upper West Side desperately needed good Chinese.

                  P.S. I don't know if posting menus is allowed here but if it is ok and if anyone is interested since the place is so new, I've scanned the takeout menu and can upload it as an attachment.

                2. a
                  anil Jun 14, 2009 07:47 AM

                  This new place has opened in what was formerly known as "Pacific Echo" which was shuttered down by the marshal's notice. That space is pretty jinxed - Quite a few restaurants have opened there and closed.

                  1. n
                    nativeNYer Jun 24, 2009 10:26 AM

                    Finally went here Monday evening around 9:30pm. Place was empty when I walked in (it was late and a Monday, afterall) and one other customer walked in for table service shortly thereafter. A couple of takeout orders were heading out at this time. Interior is nice and spotless. I loved the large wooden table in the back and it looks like there is upstairs seating.

                    The older gentleman, who took my order, was very friendly. He seemed extremely experienced and very concerned about whether or not I was pleased. Unlike the folks at Wu Liang Ye, he didn't at all mind providing details about a couple of menu items.

                    I ordered the cold sesame noodles and the stir fried chicken with roasted red chili and green chili. Although I prefer a stronger peanut flavor to these noodles which may/may not be authentic/appropriate, these were very, very good but unlike anything I've tasted before. They definitely didn't hold back on the spice. Portion size was decent and the noodles were very firm satisfying my strong but unstated preference. Chicken was crispy, spicy and served in a decent portion size. Very nice flavor.

                    Unlike other recent places I've visited serving spicy food, they served a tall, cold glass of water with ice immediately upon walking in and they refill it very regularly. The server kept asking me and the other customer whether we enjoyed the food, pointing out the large servings and asked us whether we would be back.

                    In support of the details that the OP (acidity) had provided us about the "joint venture" between Szechuan Gourmet, Grand Sichuan, and Wu Liang Ye, I was told by the guy up front that, although the restaurants are "separate", each of the owners among the three restaurants is a "shareholder". I foolishly forgot to ask whether the chef from China had arrived. Anyone have a confirmation on this?

                    They reminded us to grab a takeout menu on the way out and mentioned the coupon at the bottom. Definitely trying to drum up business. It's a bizarre location and, without much advertisement, I am a bit worried. I was happy to hear that they will deliver to the W70s with a $15 delivery minimum instead of the $8 delivery minimum. I will definitely return.

                    16 Replies
                    1. re: nativeNYer
                      Simon Jun 24, 2009 12:05 PM

                      native, thanks for the joint-venture info update...having 3 shareholders from competing Sichuan restaurants sounds a bit hilarious (like something out of a Chinese film)...i'm tempted to go try it for that reason in particular...

                      1. re: Simon
                        jeffaggy Jun 24, 2009 01:57 PM

                        I tried it the week it opened and then again today, I think the new chef arrived as the food (Hot and Sour Soup in particular) was significantly better and more flavorful than the first time. They do seem very desparate to drum up business and they were very aggressive with giving me the take out menu again....

                        1. re: jeffaggy
                          nativeNYer Jun 24, 2009 02:08 PM

                          Thanks for this confirmation! Curious to see how this all plays out.

                          1. re: nativeNYer
                            buttertart Jun 29, 2009 10:01 AM

                            We ate lunch there yesterday and were nowhere near as impressed as we have been with SG on 39th. Only the lunch menu was proffered (we did not insist on the other so what we got was perhaps our "fault") and while the hot and sour soup and mapo doufu were very good, my husband's hot bean sauce fish was no better than something from the lowliest local takeaway - more or less sweet sour fish with a litle chili added. We told the waiter that we weren't happy with it, that it was too sweet and we were expecting real douban yu - overheard him discussing with someone in the back - who said "too sweet? he's eating it...". Came out and said next time the chef will make it special (i.e. the right way). They did not offer anything else and we paid for the dish. We are not Chinese but have lived in Taiwan and spent a lot of time in the PRC and are more than averagely savvy about Chinese food. The assumption seemed to be that we wouldn't know what we were eating in any case - a poor assumption on their part as we will not hurry back (but will continue to patronize the other shop).

                            1. re: buttertart
                              nativeNYer Jun 29, 2009 11:31 AM

                              Really foolish assumption on their part. Despite the fact your husband was "eating it", the chef should have prepared it correctly the first time or immediately replaced it, NEVER making that mistake again. Says a lot about this restaurant but it raises some questions. I think someone may have said it above (or on another recent post) but it's fascinating that these places are completely unaware of the extent of American familiarization with authentic Chinese food (or any other cuisine for that matter) either through extensive travel, training and/or experience gained merely from a hobby of eating. I could be wrong but their customer base will most likely be those in the know seeking authentic food rather than those who stumble into any Chinese restaurant ISO Americanized-Chinese food. They will, therefore, lose out, unless they quickly ditch their assumptions and begin to prepare the food authentically. Are they trying to save money b/c they are already in trouble? Not sure what they are doing. Anyway, just my opinion.

                              1. re: nativeNYer
                                Bob Martinez Jun 29, 2009 12:37 PM

                                "Are they trying to save money b/c they are already in trouble?"

                                Why all the rush to bury these people? The place has been open for *two weeks* and we're ready to start shoveling dirt on the grave? The bulk of the posts on this thread have been pretty positive and now we have a single report of one uneven meal. ("the hot and sour soup and mapo doufu were very good, my husband's hot bean sauce fish was no better than something from the lowliest local takeaway.")

                                I think it's way too early and there have been too few reports to make any definitive judgments about the place. Given their pedigree, I think they deserve that.

                                1. re: Bob Martinez
                                  buttertart Jun 29, 2009 01:19 PM

                                  I agree it's too early to have a real handle on what's going on with the restaurant, however I do not see why my own perceptions should not be reported here. We went with every expectation of being delighted by the experience, as we have consistently been by the food at the 39th St restaurant. We were not. I know you are also a big fan of the other branch and would be interested to read your post(s) once you have eaten at the new one.

                                  1. re: buttertart
                                    Bob Martinez Jun 29, 2009 02:13 PM

                                    I wasn't criticizing your post in any way. My comments were directed at NativeNYer who said -

                                    "I could be wrong but their customer base will most likely be those in the know seeking authentic food rather than those who stumble into any Chinese restaurant ISO Americanized-Chinese food. They will, therefore, lose out, unless they quickly ditch their assumptions and begin to prepare the food authentically. Are they trying to save money b/c they are already in trouble?"

                                    This was especially puzzling because when he posted about his own visit he liked it - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/6273...

                                    Buttertart, your post was welcome. The more information we can get on a restaurant the better off we are. Negative reports are just as worthwhile as positive ones.

                                    I'm a big fan of the 39th St. branch of SG and I hope the new location works out. That said, they'll succeed or fail based on the strength and consistency of their kitchen. In time we'll know. I just figured that two weeks after they opened it was a little early to be putting them on a deathwatch.

                                    1. re: Bob Martinez
                                      buttertart Jun 29, 2009 02:49 PM

                                      Understood. I very much hope they succeed (as does my husband, for whom this would be a godsend as it is just a few blocks from his workplace). The somewhat offhand response to our stating (pleasantly) that the food was not what we had expected was a little offputting.

                                      1. re: Bob Martinez
                                        nativeNYer Jun 29, 2009 06:04 PM

                                        My post was an expression of frustration and concern because I WANT them to do well. Yes, as you've mentioned, I had posted a recent, positive review but became concerned today to read buttertart's somewhat negative comments especially of this nature. I agree it's too early to reach conclusions after one negative review. But I don't want the only Szechuan restaurant (that delivers to my address!!!) to miss the gun by not preparing food "the right way" for all customers (Chinese or not). Afterall, they have the capabilities AND the customer base. Let's hope they are not questioning this. My comments were not at all written to sink the place. Instead, I was hoping to pose a question and receive additional feedback especially since they seemed to be pushing hard to drum up business during my visit. IF (and that's a big "if") we learn buttertart's experience is not isolated, it would be great to quickly provide SG with some feedback. One of the reasons I appreciate this board. Hope this clarifies.

                                        1. re: nativeNYer
                                          buttertart Jun 30, 2009 05:49 AM

                                          My husband's actual comment on his fish: "I would expect something like this in the Quad Cities (he's originally from Iowa) but not here." We've actually had better Chinese food IN the Quad Cities. The people running the place need to recognize as pointed out above their likely clientele - or a good portion of it - is not the broccoli beef sweet and sour chicken crowd.

                                          1. re: buttertart
                                            fbsdg Jun 30, 2009 06:11 AM

                                            We tried this place a few nights ago with high expectations. The issue here is that this location is hoping to appeal to the tourist crowd in the area and not trade off thier name. I know this because when I asked the manager about the lack of the right amount of authentic heat in the dishes we ordered this was the explanation we received. And we have never had such a small order of ma po tofu-appetizer size. Hopefully this kitchen can get it together for chowhounds as well as tourists who want the real deal.

                                            1. re: fbsdg
                                              wobuding Jul 25, 2009 02:15 PM

                                              My whole family is going to eat here tomorrow. I've eaten here three times -- two dinners and a lunch -- within days and weeks of the opening. Generally, we had mixed but favorable opinions of the food. Now it's time to go back and really check it out, given the varied tastes of my family (two of whom lived in China for a few years and ate ordinary --great -- Chinese food). We need a Chinese restaurant in our immediate area that serves real Chinese food, so we're hoping Szechuan Gourmet is at least as good as it's 39th Street restaurant.
                                              We'll let you know!

                                              1. re: wobuding
                                                nativeNYer Jul 25, 2009 04:07 PM

                                                please keep us posted. hope you all have a great meal!

                                    2. re: Bob Martinez
                                      a_and_w Jul 26, 2009 08:46 AM

                                      Bob, I'm really surprised you're defending this. I suspect you would be apoplectic if they served you the "gringo" version of the dish. I know it makes me furious when it happens to me.

                                      1. re: a_and_w
                                        Bob Martinez Jul 26, 2009 10:45 AM

                                        Here's what I said -

                                        "Why all the rush to bury these people? The place has been open for *two weeks* and we're ready to start shoveling dirt on the grave? The bulk of the posts on this thread have been pretty positive and now we have a single report of one uneven meal."

                                        It's not like I'm defending a place that had been ripped by dozens of people. The bulk of the posts *prior* to that time and *after* that were generally positive. Someone took that single negative post and drew a conclusion that the food was "dumbed down." I thought that was premature since the place had only been open for 2 weeks.

                                        Over time a consensus forms on restaurants. It's based on multiple people eating multiple meals. Usually people get it right. It's not that anyone shouldn't post negative reviews - that's all part of the game. But when I read threads I look for the larger overall consensus.

                                        In time we'll get a feeling for the new restaurant. (It *is* still new - it's been open for only 6 weeks.) I look forward to reading more reviews.

                        2. a_and_w Jul 26, 2009 08:41 AM

                          Awesome! Can't wait to try this place next time I'm in town. That's really surprising they refused to serve the diced chicken with chilis with the bone in. That's the traditional way to do it, and as you noted, the bone really contributes moistness and flavor to the dish. Just to clarify, that place link is a mistake, correct? This place is on 56th in Manhattan?

                          1. Bob Martinez Nov 12, 2009 09:24 AM

                            I'm just inserting a Place link so it's easier to find this thread.

                            Szechuan Gourmet
                            244 W 56th St, New York, NY 10019

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Bob Martinez
                              foodwhisperer Nov 12, 2009 09:16 PM

                              pork belly is great there , and the lobster is excellent

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