Saturday, June 7, 2008

Szechuan Gourmet

Think that midtown Manhattan is a culinary wasteland? Well, for the most part, you're right. But the exception to the rule awaits you at 21 West 39th Street. Its name is Szechuan Gourmet, and it's a temple devoted to the exaltation of humble ingredients--garlic, chile, green onions--to divine status. The flavors are bold and incredibly spicy, but also nuanced thanks to prodigious use of Szechuan peppercorns, which taste floral and--this is the only way I can describe it--"purpley." Think of the way opium (or, uh, incense) smells--that's kind of how Szechuan peppercorns taste. They also have a slightly numbing effect on the tongue and mouth which is rather pleasant.

Apparently Szechuan cuisine was really en vogue in the 60s and 70s--when I was telling my parents about how exotic-tasting I find the food at Szechuan Gourmet to be, they said that they used to eat Szechuan food all the time back in the day. The style seems to have fallen somewhat out of favor, but I can't really imagine why. Szechuan Gourmet is definitely one of my favorite restaurants in the city. Aside from the complex flavor profiles I described above, the restaurant also serves up some really interesting types of meat and fish that I never knew were used in China, such as rabbit, ox tongue, lamb, and razor clams. But let's move on to what Malcolm, Shannon and I ate when we visited on Thursday evening. To start off, we shared an order of "Szechuan Pork Dumplings with Roasted Chili Soy" ($3.95). Like most good dumplings, these are incredibly addictive--I could have eaten twenty of them. Plump, moist and porky with thin, tender skins, the dumplings are served with a rich, thick and spicy sauce:

Next up we had one of my favorite dishes on the menu, "Crispy Lamb Filets with Chili Cumin" ($14.95). The pieces of lamb are tender on the inside and crispy on the outside, coated heavily with smoky cumin, and showered with crunchy bits of garlic, red chiles and green onions. Such a perfect mix of flavors:

Providing a nice textural contrast to the lamb was "Baby Eggplant with Spicy Garlic Sauce"--a classic Chinese dish ($6.25). I'm not a big fan of Italian eggplants, at least the way they sell them in the U.S.--they're big and full of moisture and seeds and often taste bland or bitter or, somehow, both. Asian cuisines use Japanese eggplants, which are smaller, slimmer and lighter in color than their cousins. The vegetable's flesh is soft and unctuously creamy--very delicious. Slick the eggplants with a sauce shimmering with chili oil and flecked with bits of garlic and you can't go wrong:

Three generous portions of food, served with rice and green tea, set each of us back $14, including, as always, tax and tip. Cheap eats at its best.

Szechuan Gourmet
21 West 39th Street (between 5th and 6th)
(212) 921-0233


Anonymous said...

id describe sichuan peppercorns as INCREDIBLY numbing sensation...
its hard to like

Anonymous said...

this is my favorite chinese restaurant in midtown. i'm lucky to work just 3 blocks away. although lunch specials may be uneven, the basic menu items are spectacular.

i loved their eggplants too, but i think those were of chinese, not japanese variety (i might be wrong though). actually, i think chinese eggplants are irreplaceable for stir-fry.

Sophie said...

the eggplant dish looks so delish!

this is really one of the simplest dishes to make anywhere in the world so long as you can get hold of eggplant and sauce package.

Here I bought a sauce pack so as to skip all the seasonings! and i will try this friday after work.

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