Szechwan Palace - Outing Report
Small turnout due to the last-minute notice, but a very nice lunch at Szechwan Palace this afternoon! This is, indeed, the real deal so long as you stick with the leather-bound Chinese menu rather than the laminated Americanized menu (the former is fully populated with very good translations).
We started off with a cold dish and some dumplings. The cold dish was the very typical thinly-sliced cold beef -- flank, tongue and tripe (the tendon is sold as a standalone rather than being added to the mix, to my dismay) -- in a spicy, oily ma la sauce. I love how you can always get this dish and every chef's balance is a little different. In this instance, it's heavy on the salt and Sichuan pepper. I've had plenty of versions where the latter was a background flavor, but this plate brought out some pretty significant tingle.
The dumplings were one of two listed with very similar descriptions. We took a stab at which we thought would most closely resemble what you typically see served as Chengdu dumplings (none of us could read the original Chinese to know), and we guessed wrong. But they were very nice, nonetheless, very moist, gently seasoned pork dumplings swimming in a bowl of broth spiked with chile oil. I'm not familiar enough with the finer points of Sichuan to know what type of broth it was, but it was very light and clean, and not at the expense of good flavor.
First entree was salted fried shrimp with jalapeno, listed as breaded on the menu but that's misleading. Very typical with the barest hint of a breaded shell, plenty of salt and a heavy dose of garlic. Shells could've been a little crispier for my taste, but they were still quite good. Very nice flavor.
There's a cumin beef on the menu, but we inquired about the specials board (written in Chinese) and learned that there was a cumin lamb on today, so we weren't passing on that. Simple, straightforward stir fry, very fragrant, but not overpowering. Lamb was quite tender and they didn't shy away from some fatty bits, much to my delight.
Chicken with jalapeno, while well-executed, I could have done without. Diced thigh meat stir fry in a dark soy-based sauce with nice aromatics and chunks of hot pepper. I can't knock it, but it's a little on the ho-hum side.
Winner of the day for me was the water-boiled fish, an enormous serving of fish fillets completely submerged in a bowl of sauce that looked like it'd take your eyebrows off but which turned out to be surprisingly mellow. I was less enthused by my first helping, but I think that's partly because we were skimming the hot oil off the top and weren't getting to the good stuff beneath, and partly because I think some of the flavors came out a little more once it had cooled a touch. Texture on the fish was spectacular, very delicate and incredibly moist. And the sauce, while it had a little kick, wasn't nearly as hot as its color suggested. Like the dumplings, it was another broth-based sauce, but it was much deeper and richer. I got ginger, I got garlic, I got chile oil and toasted chiles, I got some nice citrusy Sichuan pepper, I got leeks -- there was an awful lot going on. Really delightful, and it got a little better every time I went back for more.
My socks are on, but I think this is a very good Sichuan place, and I'm especially tickled that they're just down the street. Everything was solid, a couple of dishes were very good, and I think their chef showed some real skill on that water-boiled fish. There's much to explore on this menu and I know a number of people who wanted to go couldn't make it, so I say we call this the scouting mission and get a crowd together for a second pass in a few weeks. Drop me a line if you're interested (firstname.lastname@example.org), and I'll also get some photos up at some point.
Thanks for the report back! Sichuan is my favorite Asian cuisine to eat, and cook. In fact, had to make some ma po tofu, water-boiled beef, and dry-fried eggplant this weekend since your report made me hungry. Looking forward to your pictures, and a future visit to Szechwan Palace.
Ma po tofu:
(PS - sorry to read about El Bulli on your blog, I commiserate)
Thanks for the reminder!
Photos below... dish titles are not the official menu titles (didn't write them down):
Cold Sliced Beef, Tongue and Tripe:
Cumin Lamb (Special):
Water Boiled Fish:
As for El Bulli, le's drown our sorrows over Sichuan sometime soon. And ferran doesn't know what he's missing :-D
Sounds like the dumplings you got were "chao shou" -- which is a traditional Chengdu street snack, or xiaochi.
A typical, basic bowl of chao shou usually consists of pork dumplings with a hint of ginger, and pleated to resemble large wonton (as opposed to traditional Northern dumplings). The chao shou are usually served in a bowl of nearly opaque broth, made from simmered pork bones. Sometimes, they will be accompanied on the side with a bowl of plain boiled cabbage and some preserved veggies.
When the chou shou come in a chili oil broth (usu. peppercorn oil that is added to the pork broth), it is called "ma la chou shou".
That sounds like a fairly accurate description of the dumplings -- more like a wonton, very delicately seasoned -- but the broth was very clear. Here's a photo:
There was a very thin layer of oil across the top, so there's much less than appears in this photo. It was primarily broth. But it wasn't served with a soup spoon, so I assumed it wasn't meant to be sipped (not that that stopped me from doing so :-).