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Aug 14, 2010 10:53 AM

Nadeau review of Sichuan Gourmet

Nadeau gives Sichuan Gourmet (review headline says Sichuan Garden but that's another story) in Brookline 4 stars, yet disses their non-authentic menu offerings. I love their authentic dishes. However, I quibble with 4 stars for a restaurant that has stuff on the menu that it doesn't execute well. I ate here with family members who don't like spicy food. They ordered mainstream items such as chicken with peapods and lo mein. It was bad. There is no excuse - if it's on the menu, it should be well executed, or no 4 stars. Period.

Sichuan Garden
295 Washington St, Brookline, MA 02445

Sichuan Gourmet
1004 Beacon St, Brookline, MA 02446

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  1. I don't think I've ever tried a place that fit this bill "if it's on the menu, it should be well executed" except for the smallish bistro type places and even then, they have their ups and downs...

    the goal as a foodie IMHO is to try to identify the best dishes at a place...

    1. Yah, I have to agree with Spike, If you don't like spicy, don't go to a Sichuan restaurant. And if you don't really like Chinese, (chicken with peapods, seriously) stick with PF Changs.

      1 Reply
      1. re: StriperGuy

        I have to admit that there is plenty on the menu that is not very good even though the best is worthy of 4 stars. I do not think that Nadeau made that clear in his review, and i would be disappointed if I read this review without the caveats.

        That being said, I was a regular in Bilerica and am now a regular in Brookline. Some of my favorite dishes in Boston are being served at SG.

      2. I agree with the others and i will add that there are plenty of authentic non-spicy dishes on the menu that are excellent. So not liking spicy food is not really a reason to order the subpar americanized la-choy fare.

        Some examples:
        Steamed jumbo shrimp with fresh garlic
        fresh whole fish with scallion
        meat ball sichuan style (lions head)
        shredded pork with fresh bamboo shoots
        fresh bamboo shoots with sesamee oil
        scallops with black pepper sauce
        shredded duck with ginger
        chicken with asperagus w/ chengdu special sauce

        23 Replies
        1. re: hargau

          Love the shredded pork with bamboo shoots, when I can tear myself away from the spicy stuff!!

          1. re: hargau

            In all fairness, my original post was a bit over the top, but I mean seriously, chicken with peapods, I don't even know that that is, but if you order it you really are better off at PF Changs.

            1. re: StriperGuy

              Hey its nontrivial to execute a good chicken w/ peapods, don't knock it... just because a dish doesn't involve obscure animal organs or szechuan peppercorns doesn't mean it is not worth executing example is the fish filet w/ vegetables at New Shanghai... a simple sounding dish, not spicy or exotic, but even other "authentic" places like Shanghai Gate and Jo Jo Taipei don't always get it right

              1. re: barleywino

                Or the pan-fried tofu at Taiwan Cafe, literally a thin slab of pan seared tofu with a soy-based broth on it, looks like a child could make it, but I know deep down it'd take me a year to figure out how to execute it that well on my own.

                It is funny how we are all shiznuts for mala nowadays.

                1. re: tatsu

                  "It is funny how we are all shiznuts for mala nowadays."

                  To a fault, sometimes. The nuances of Sichuan cuisine have been lost on many people simply looking for the most amount of peppercorns and chilis. It's not just about how mala can you ga.

                2. re: barleywino

                  Sorry I just plain disagree. It don't have to be funky, it don't have to be crazy, it don't have to be spicy, or ma la or have animal organs in it to be good, that I totally agree. Some of the milder, understated dishes can be wonderful, YES.

                  But chicken with pea pods is the baked haddock of Chinese cooking imho. Order baked haddock in almost any place and you are going to get a boring piece of fish, OVER-COOKED, swimming in butter with crappy bread crumbs on top.

                  Even in a decent place the chef will probably assume it's for grandma and that's how she wants it. If he served the fish a little moist and heaven forbid not REALLY cooked through, a bit rare inside, it would get sent back 95% of the time. Any place that has it on the menu does so because THEY FEEL THEY HAVE TO. It's just not going to get much respect in prep as the cuisine that the resto is really about. Whether it's the meatloaf, or the mignonette.

                  If you are going to judge a place on the baked haddock you are missing the point. And the same is true for chicken with pea pods. The line at PF Changs get's longer every year.

                  1. re: StriperGuy

                    Can't speak for the chicken and peapods dishes, never had any, but I have to disagree about how you think baked haddock is served. I've had some really good baked haddock dishes not even close to your impression. With crabmeat or lobster meat stuffing, spinach, tomato and garlic, lemon pepper, all cooked perfect in not very creative places too.

                    1. re: Infomaniac

                      the point is that there is mediocre stuff on SG menu, and a review should point that out.

                      It is hard to go wrong at say, Le Bernadin, in NYC where amything off the menu is wonderful, and that is not possible at SG.

                      How you handle that in a review is a quetion? That saying, I go to SG often and consider it a great bargain.

                      1. re: Infomaniac

                        OF COURSE SOME PLACES make it very well. It is not inherently a bad dish. But my point is many places have it on the menu because they feel they have to, and it is a risky dish to order for that reason.

                        1. re: StriperGuy

                          this is true. i think it is those risky "obligatory" dishes that separate the good chefs from the great chefs, the great chefs can make even the simplest, potentially most boring dishes sing. (for that reason, i never order chicken unless i'm at a restaurant that has the potential to knock it out of the ballpark.)

                          1. re: barleywino

                            Agree with much of what is being said, but will just add that there are certain scenarios which, at least for me, call for a somewhat more cautious and/or calculated approach, the first example coming to mind that of "kung pao chicken." Ubiquitous, obligatory chicken dish on literally every single Chinese restaurant menu in the history of the entire universe. But you could be at the Wok'n'Roll restaurant in Verona, North Dakota one day and come to find out the Sichuan cook in back has spent a lifetime mastering the dish, elevating it to unimaginable levels of sublimity. I realize y'all are not talking about these outliers, but just saying I am always on the lookout for them. You never know when that General Tsos will take you to nirvana.

                            1. re: Nab

                              Ah yes, but when you are in that place in ND, there will be 3 or 4 or 5 hints that a serious hound will pick up on (what they are eating at the staff meal, some birds nests proudly displayed in a case, that indescribable vibe) which might just indicate that there is more then meets the eye.

                              This all started when the OP condemned SG cause of it's lousy chicken with pea pods. And my point is that if you are going to rule out a resto base on how they prepare the crappiest of standard dishes, shrimp cocktail anyone, you are going to miss a lot of excellent food.

                              Anywhere short of Le Bernardin (is that still around) it pays to do a little detective work, find out where the chef's heart really lies (particularly in ND) and order that.

                              If you stick with the chicken with pea pods, baked haddock, or the shrimp cocktail, it's going to be a long boring meal (life).

                              1. re: StriperGuy

                                Well my dad used to order tamago on the menu first. If it was bad, he would skip. Similarly, Jacques Pepin would order a boiled egg, and if it had green rings, he would judge it bad right then and there.

                                Fair? Harsh? Maybe. Maybe not.

                                1. re: tatsu

                                  Who cares about fair or not. You're going to miss a LOT of good food with a silly, narrowly focused, totally arbitrary TEST lacking all context.

                                  Honestly I think it belies a lost in time, old school, narrrow minded approach that is far more likely to leave you at the two or three restos that PASS the silly test, possibly to the utter lack of any creativity, then being ANY useful gauge of good food. It is a GREAT way to eliminate 80% of the restos in the universe and stick to the 3-4 places in a particular person's comfort zone.

                                  A boiled egg, or Tamago is ONLY a test of how good they boil an egg or make Tamago. What does it have anything to do with anything else in the food universe? Seriously?

                                  Who the heck serves boiled eggs? And do you really think every Japanese resto gives a hoot about their Tamago? Your Dad, and Jacques may care, but that is a pretty small universe for dismissing a resto outright.

                                  I can order a boiled egg at the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, which they might very well botch, and miss the best pancakes and breafasts in Boston. I can give you a hundred other similar, comparable, arbitrary tests, which in the larger chowniverse tell you next to nothing.

                                  It's about the chow. Try the menu, see if there are good things to eat. Eat them, don't eat the bad things. It's really not that complicated.

                                  Deluxe Town Diner
                                  627 Mt Auburn St, Watertown, MA 02472

                                  1. re: StriperGuy

                                    If Jacques Pepin or your father used that test on SG, they would miss a lot of good eating.

                                    This test might well work for certain restaurants but not for a sichuan restaurant.

                                    Why should not Pepin walk into a french restaurant, demand gung bao ji ding, and the walk out if it is not well prepared.

                                    In the context of a sichuan restaurant, this sort of test does not make sense.

                                    1. re: StriperGuy

                                      I agree up to a point. However, I do believe that chefs that take pride in their craft should be able to execute any dish on the _menu_ with a fair degree of excellence. The problem lies in the fact that in most ethnic restaurants, the chef is not the owner, and probably (I'm guessing here) has little say in the total menu outlay.

                                      Problems arise because the owner may want to cover all the bases and, knowing that a certain percentage of diners will order 'safe' or 'familiar' dishes (e.g. pea-pod/chicken example), but the chef has no real idea how to cook those items, and does them poorly. This might not be the chef's fault, but it does reflect badly on the restaurant as a whole, imo. Imagine if this wasn't sichuan gourment, but L'Espalier, and fully one third of the menu was terrible or practically inedible, including say a classic dish such as a lamb chop or whatever. It might still be an excellent restaurant, with some outstanding dishes, but a) if you order the lamb and it's awful, would you defend the chef if he holds his hands up and says he actually doesn't know how to cook it, so it's not his fault and b) if it got a 4-star review, how up in arms would everyone be, especially if there weren't qualifiers?

                                      Not everyone reads CH, nor should they. But if a respected food critic gives an outstanding review of a restaurant, they should (knowing the general readership) at least hint that one should only order the sichuan dishes from the menu. Otherwise, the 'bottom line' 4-star review, does, suggest, at least to the non-initiant (who has most to gain from said review) that almost anything on the menu will be v. good or excellent.


                                      1. re: trueblu

                                        I agree with you that in an ideal world, the chef would stick to his knitting and only do sichuanese food. And, sorry to repeat myself, Nadeau should have warned new comers that the non-sichuanese part of the menu is not very good. And yes, this americanized chinese food does not show SG in the best light.

                                        So, what i would say is that SG is a 3.5 star sichuanese restaurant and a 1/2 star amerianized chinese restaurant.

                                        I brought a friend from LA - which has no shortage of good chinese grub - over to SG, ordered correctly, and he thought that the food was better than anything he had in LA or in China. That outbalances the weakness in the menu for me.

                                      2. re: StriperGuy

                                        I don't 100% ascribe to these tests myself, but for sushi, I will "markdown" for bad tamago, certainly. Pepin wouldn't eat eggs at SG but the point is that eggs are a good test, if you can't cook eggs you can't cook anything is basically his thinking, no excuses. I think there are a few ways to think about food myself and context is important, I never suggested applying these tests to SG I was simply playing devil's advocate and it's nothing to get excited about.

                                        If we made an analogy to music, I suppose my dad and Pepin would say if you can't play perfect scales you have no business making music. This is of course, applies to classical music more than pop and no one is bashing "The Edge" from U2 despite not being able to read music or having any training. (I find his guitar pretty boring tho.)

                                        Flashes of brillance and good chow is very important to us as consumers but there is something to be said for "the old ways", sticking to the basics and being traditionally trained.

                                        1. re: tatsu

                                          i would mark down Osushi in Copley for such a test. I asked them whether they had otoro and the chef said no. then i saw that it was listed on their daily specials list and asked them about it and the same chef said yes, they had it, and pointed to something that was definitely not otoro. very odd. either they don't know, or dont care.

                                          1. re: tatsu

                                            I've essentially given up on ordering tamago in town since so few places have an acceptable version. tatsu, where are you enjoying tamago these days ? I seem to recall Douzo having a legit tamago but it has been a long while since I last ordered it.

                                            Also, is this how you make your tamago ? ;)



                                            131 Dartmouth St, Boston, MA 02116

                                            1. re: Nab

                                              well most of us have a little square tamago skillet but that is the basic idea. the best tamago i had is in NYC, it's a semi-secret dining place but if you go there, msg me and i'll tell ya where to go. the tamago there is actually one of the best things i've ever seen with eggs. pillowy but still firm and moist. it was very very "tall" for a tamago, maybe 5-6 cm high. i just didn't think it was possible

                                    2. re: Nab

                                      i agree. i used to go to one place in NYC just for their exceptional mapo tofu, it wasn't red, it wasn't spicy, but had an incredible subtle white pepper/scallion/ginger/garlic sauce. another place just for perfect al dente shrimp wontons, etc. you come back a month later and the chef has moved on and the dish is gone, like that. the melt in your mouth fish filet in wine sauce at CK Shanghai in wellesley, no longer the same dish as a few years ago, even if the same chef. chicken with peapods might be tender with egg white/cornstarch one time, the next time it might be dry and boring. its like dipping your toe into the stream, you can never dip into the same spot twice.

                      2. Took the wife here last night last night before the concert. Got there at 5:30 or so, place was empty. We had late lunch, so ordered the Sichaun String Beans (which we get everywhere, so it was a good test) and the Pan Fried noodles with seafood (which I've had dozens of places).

                        The beans were very well cooked, although not at all spicy (as advertised). The seafood noodles just didn't hit me like they should. The noodles were very dry. When we put the seafood (4 shrimp, a bunch of white fish, a few scallops, no squid, which I noticed later they just don't serve) on the noodles, they absorbed some of the moisture and taste of the seafood, otherwise they reminded us of ramen. Good ramen, but ramen nevertheless.

                        Will definitely go back, before a ballgame or something, but we'll stick with CK Shanghai for our suburban Chinese.

                        17 Replies
                        1. re: L2k

                          Forgive me for belaboring what seems to have become the point of this thread, but it should be no surprise that the Sichuan dish that you ordered at Sichuan Gourmet is the one you enjoyed, and the Hong-Kong style Cantonese pan-fried noodles came up short. Short of serving family style with rice and chopsticks, the two cuisines couldn't be more different.

                          For what it's worth, I also don't generally go to Sichuan Gourmet for dim sum, xiao long bao, wontons, chow fun, chow mein, lo mein, Shanghai style noodles, roast pork, roast duck, salt and pepper fried anything, or shaved ice, but I suspect CK Shanghai might be a good bet for any one of those dishes.

                          1. re: BJK

                            I have no problem with the belaboring. We went on the spur of the moment (she's not a big fan of Chinese), and I didn't have a chance to study to figure out which dishes are Sichuan and which aren't, so I could order more appropriately.

                            Although maybe, that's the point. Unless the dishes are categorized as such, how is the average diner to know what is worth ordering and what isn't?

                            1. re: L2k

                              Ahhhh, but this is chowhound. The average diner most certainly will NOT know. That's what chowhound is all about.

                              1. re: StriperGuy

                                Darn it, but ain't you right!

                                Forgot to mention, the place was still mostly empty when we left at 6PM on Saturday. I know, I know, too early for Chowhounds. I imagine it must have been bursting at the seams by 7:30-8PM when the real aficionados were ready to dine.

                                1. re: L2k

                                  i would prefer dining at 5-5:30, especially on a Saturday night. come to think of it, i hardly ever dine out on fridays or saturdays anymore.

                          2. re: L2k

                            I have had the pan fried noodles at S.G framingham and wouldnt recommend them. Again, not what they are known for or do well. It's a cantonese / americanized dish.. Stick with the Sichuan dishes. The Sichuan Style String beans have 0 peppers for hotness on their menu
                            So i wouldnt have expected them to be spicy at all.

                            1. re: hargau

                              i took a friend from chicago to CK Shanghai where i had some great Shanghai food including shanghai style shrimp and dusch - which were not on the menu. He wanted to lure CK to Chicago which is a good place for Chinese food, if not LA or SF.

                              Even at Le Bernadin in NYC there is surf and turf on the menu. Even the best restaurants offer dishes for customer who do not have a clue what they should be ordering.

                              1. re: cambridgedoctpr

                                Perhaps I missed it but in all of this discussion there seems to be no link to Nadeau's actual review. So here it is:


                                I have now read it.

                                Its central point is that SG is middling to lousy for everything but real Sichuan cooking. The reports have confirmed that. The argument is whether or not a restaurant a large part of whose menu is middling to lousy should get 4 stars.

                                I have not seen the hard copy of the menu, but if a quarter to a half consists of such inferior items then SG does not deserve 4 stars. I suspect given American resto tastes the inferior items probably represent a substantial part of the text.

                                At best Nadeau should have given two ratings, four stars for Sichuan and a big zero for everything else. His text actually offers that, but his capsule star rating does not. That is the fault of the format in which he was working. And it is his fault for failing to adjust the format.

                                1. re: VivreManger

                                  It is not 1/4 or 1/2 , it is a very small portion of the menu. I have had many of those dishes too because sometimes we go out with large groups where someone orders one. I have not had anything that I would call nonedible but to me it was typical of a strip-mall chinese takeout joint. Nothing special... People ordering it when i have had them have liked the Lo-Mein, etc just fine.

                                  Oddly enough the "chicken with peapods" that started this all, doesnt even show on their menu! Was this a "special request"???

                                  We went to the Billerica location last night and it was all excellent as usual. One of our new favorites is Zha Jiang Noodle Soup with Pork & Spicy Sauce

                                  1. re: VivreManger

                                    Stick to your truly 4 Star worthy restaurants and leave the good stuff for the rest of us.

                                    1. re: StriperGuy

                                      This is the OP jumping back in. Very interesting and worthwhile discussion. Here's my takeaway: I love the authentic dishes at SG. I would give them close to 4 stars. My mother loves chicken with snow peas. The dish she got at SG was worthy of a fast food stand at a shopping mall. I still maintain that if a restaurant doesn't prepare what's on its menu up to an excellent standard for that dish, then it does not deserve to be a 4 star restaurant.

                                      1. re: FoonFan

                                        As to Nadeaus review. He never used to use stars in the old days. And I always thought that he was such a good writer that he didn't need them . I still like his style and I think the whole star thing can be misleading. I think forgetting the star controversy his review was pretty clear as to what to avoid. and quite informative as to the dishes,that shine. After all thats why we read the reviews.

                                        1. re: LeRique

                                          i am not sure that i have been to a restaurant without weaknesses in the menu though, say Le Bernadin, the holes are not quite so deep. But, boy, i get the same pleasure from a great meal at SG as at LB, and pay 15% as much.

                                          And the reason to read and write at chowhound is to ferret out the highs and the best deals.

                                          1. re: cambridgedoctpr

                                            Couldn't agree more! And Nadeau I think is pretty good at doing that. His knowledge of the Boston Chinese scene is pretty on point.

                                            1. re: LeRique

                                              I've just read the Nadeau review, and have been roused from my somnolescent torpor to post to Chowhound. Based on what he chose to order at Lao Sichuan, as well as his reviews of other "Chinese" restaurants, I have to dispute the claim that "his knowledge of the Boston Chinese scene is pretty on point."

                                              Inspired by some vague 20-year-old memory of the claims of Joyce Chen (who BTW was from Beijing and left China in 1949, so I'd be very surprised if she knew much about Sichuan cooking) from 20 years ago, he goes to a Sichuan restaurant and orders tangerine beef, for crying out loud. (In fact, he spends a lot of time ordering things he knows to be nontraditional.) And I'm willing to bet he wasn't expecting a "cold" (room-temperature) dish loaded with dry beef, dried peppers and huajiao, and only a hint of tangerine.

                                              And he *admits* "this fiasco was my own fault." Then he comes to Chowhound to do his homework, research he should have done *before* he ever darkened their door, and, hopefully chastened, returns to try to order an actual Sichuan meal, and gets an argument from the waiter.

                                              Nadeau's other reviews only serve to cement my contempt He doesn't seem to know much about the dishes he's ordering nor the ingredients that comprise them. For example, he "hoped Szechwan crispy beef would be made with the same technique used for twice-fried pork." Um, no. He complains about a 辣鹽 dish that "all the spice was in a dribble of chili flakes and scallions applied on top". Yes, that's what the dish IS that you ordered, you blithering illiterate--though to be fair, it should have bits of small fresh hot peppers, not chili flakes.

                                              On top of everything else, he "[views] it as immoral to offer dishes that the kitchen doesn’t at least try to execute well." But make no mistake, Robert Nadeau is the enemy--HE is the person that motivates the behavior he deplores, the person who orders the dishes he disses. Or can he really be so delusional as to believe the cooks who work 12-hour days in those kitchens *want* to make swill for the white trade?

                                              And just what the heck is "Mandarin-Szechuan" food anyway? Apparently part of "the old Cambridge M-S tradition", whatever that is. This isn't a mere Kliman-esque "famous ma la peppercorn" misunderstanding, Nadeau's is the kind of deep ignorance and stupidity that leads otherwise friendly Chinese people to refuse to serve "his kind" (meaning people like me and probably you) the food we actually want to eat. Four stars is the *least* he can give to a place like Lao Sichuan.

                                              1. re: KWagle

                                                mandarin refers to the ruling class in china. every province had its mandarin class, and perhaps the upper class food of each province could be considered the food of the local mandarins.

                                                once you get to know the people at the restaurant, you will not have problems. the servers are being cautious when serving to the white devils.

                                          2. re: LeRique

                                            I made the same point about Sichuan vs. non- in my late-May Boston Phoenix On the Cheap review of Sichuan Gourmet, Brookline (and it's equally true at the other two locations).

                                            I can state authoritatively that no professional reviewer, Nadeau first among them, likes assigning star ratings, for reasons many and obvious. I'm really glad I don't have to do them in my two paid gigs. They are idiotically, unfairly simplistic.


                                            Sichuan Gourmet
                                            1004 Beacon St, Brookline, MA 02446

                              2. I'm moving at the end of this month to an apartment 2 blocks away from SG in Brookline, and am very excited to check it out. As a pescatarian who really enjoys dishes with heat, what should I be ordering?

                                7 Replies
                                1. re: Kinopio

                                  We like these 3...
                                  Fish fillets with spicy chili sauce - this is in a large bowl over cabbage. (they offer this same dish with chicken,pork, etc but we like the fish the best)
                                  Xiang la dry fish fillet. - This one is lightly coated and dry fried with lots of chili peppers
                                  Jin Gu Fish Fillets - This is their hottest dish. Its a large bowl with lots of brothy sauce over brocoli.

                                  Make sure to let them know you like it spicy.

                                  1. re: hargau

                                    Ditta, what hargau says - we love love love th xiang la fish fillet but we dine in billerica where everything is always AWESOME and spicy!!

                                    I love shrimp but haven't found a good spicy shrimp dish.

                                    1. re: hargau

                                      Is the fish in each of these dishes, tilapia? In my experience that has become the standard issue US Chinese resto fish. I don't find it that tasty.

                                      1. re: VivreManger

                                        i don't know in brookline, but at sichuan gourmet in billerica, in the fish filet dishes they use flounder filets, in the whole fish dishes they use tilapia.

                                        1. re: qianning

                                          Correct. This is what the brookline menu says as well.

                                        2. re: VivreManger

                                          VM, Formosa-Taipei in Lexington (mostly take-out) makes a delicious spicy flounder filet (under the Chef's Specials menu). I'm not a fan of tilapia, and often shy away from ordering fish dishes in Chinese restaurants because that tends to be what is used. This is definitely well-prepared flounder in a delicious sauce.

                                      2. re: Kinopio

                                        Szechuan Village also does a killer whole fish in a bowl with plenty of heat.