Submitted By Simon Hardy Butler, November 7, 2016-6:09 pm
Remember the 1984 film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science-fiction novel Dune? Where everyone seemed to be waxing poetic, ad infinitum, about the “spice”?
I totally know what they were talking about.
No, I haven’t folded space or anything like that. Actually, my enthusiasm is far more terrestrial, given the fact that much of it comes from a love of foods accentuated with the proper amounts of seasoning. These include munchies carrying capsicum-conveyed heat, such as the oft-searing fare supplied by Szechuan Gourmet on 39th Street in Manhattan. For I know that just because a dish is fiery doesn’t mean it’s not appropriate. And this terrific Chinese restaurant adheres to that maxim with gusto—which, of course, is exactly the kind of attitude I like. Yes, now it can be told. I dig eateries that give a damn.
They don’t grow on trees, ya know.
Bear in mind you’re not coming here for any kind of Fifth Avenue-style splashy décor. The Chinese cuisine is the star, and that’s hardly suggested by the rather drab interior featuring too few wall-friendly pictures, too many indifferent paper lanterns and a color scheme that can best be described as “maudlin.” You may, however, forget these trivialities right after you sit down, for just as you’re getting comfortable, you’re brought a little dish of pickles vegetables—sour, refreshing slivers that perk up your appetite in a jiffy. Such quick service is a hallmark here … you’re never waiting for too long. Indeed, the appetizers come fast and furious, crowding your table like traders scrambling to buy a hot pick at the stock exchange. It’s almost overwhelming.
Almost, but not completely. This is Szechuan fare, an addictive culinary style that lasts long in the memory, and you have no qualms about trying the myriad plates—each of which offers a profound look at the gastronomic art. You’ll bear witness to the lip-smacking thousand-year-old eggs, quarters of gelatinous, sea-green translucence dispensing a delicate, slightly cheesy flavor found only in the best versions of this specialty. The sliced conch is just as toothsome: Clad in a reddish oil, the ribbons of crustacean are slippery and noodle-like and pleasantly fishy, with a mere touch of ocean aftertaste.
But then you have the spicy spring bamboo shoots with “fernbraken,” and the world becomes a different, much less mundane place.
What can you make of this dish, which looks like a pile of torn-up twigs and tastes like the burn of an aromatic, edible volcano? It may not be your favorite munchie, yet you can’t help eating it, despite the creeping scorch in the back of your throat. Cessation is impossible. You might as well succumb to the temptation of unusual, sensual heat.
A richly soothing chicken with baby eggplant entrée dispense needed relief, calming your now-numb tongue. It’s better and feistier than the usual version of this staple, and you receive more of it than you can consume; the thought of having what you leave over for lunch the next day brings a grin to your flushed face. What really makes you happy, however, are the crispy lamb filets with chili cumin, perhaps the most extraordinary dish in the house. Picture about a pound of non-greasy, batter-fried lamb tidbits drenched in fragrant dried cumin, curls of hot red pepper and immense pieces of garlic—which, if not raw, are in such a natural state as to spur you to cover your mouth while chewing—and you have this primordial, satisfying dish … the fact that any lamb character is hidden by the fierce kick of the other ingredients matters not a jot; this is the gustatory equivalent of a Pollock painting or a Wagner overture, where greatness takes center stage over subtlety, abandon over trepidation. Achievement, sometimes, doesn’t depend on understatement. This is one of those times.
To quench your thirst, you might want to order a Tsingtao beer with your provender; it’s cold, bottled, bracing, lovely. There’s also water, and the staff is careful to fill your glass often. As you prepare to pay your very reasonable bill (entrees may range, in general, from the low-teens to the twenties), you may get a chance to talk to your amiable waiter, who calls the victuals offered here “real Chinese food.”
He’s correct … but authenticity isn’t the only thing you came for. Spice, like the commodity coveted in Dune, is one of the high points, and at Szechuan Gourmet, the spice is right. Enjoy it at your liberty.
You may find yourself wanting it again in a reality-based—sans science-fiction—future.