Hosted a large dinner (seventeen people or so) at the 7th Avenue Grand Sichuan the other night.
I wanted to host this dinner at a good Chinese restaurant in Manhattan (a precious few), which could accommodate a large party on short notice, and provide enough room so as not to feel crowded and be quiet enough to be able to talk. I walked in the night before and asked for the entire back of the restaurant to be reserved for us --- this was the entire bench at the back of the restaurant, which can be made into one very, very long table. About twenty people can be accommodated at most. I judged this was better than two large round tables, as I might have been able to get at another restaurant, such as Wu Liang Ye.
All in all, this worked out well. The restaurant was actually quite crowded at 8 PM on a Tuesday evening, and it was a little noisier than I would have hoped. The brick walls, large windows and modern furniture are pretty, although they don't keep the noise down very well. A restaurant with a large private room would have been ideal, but this ended up being a very good compromise.
On to the food:
cui4 kou3 huang2 gua (Cold Cucumber with Scallion Sauce) was perhaps the highlight of the evening. Expertly sliced cold cucumber mixed with a slivered scallions in a light white vinegar. It was crisp and refreshing and a most unusual spin on this dish.
fu1 qi1 fei4 pian4 (OX Tongue & Tripe with Spicy Peppery Sauce) was decent, although nothing special. The sauce was fairly la4 but not at all ma2. The beef itself was more brisket than tripe, and tasted more like five spice beef covered in la4 you2 (chili oil) than a proper fu1 qi1 fei4 pian. The hot oil itself was quite good, and I sopped some up eagerly with the next dish . . .
cong1 you2 bing3 (Scallion Pancake) are of the interesting variety that I've only seen at Grand Sichuans. Very thin, browned on the outside, with a filling inside that's colored green throughout with a subtle hint of scallions, but no texture of them. This is not my favourite variety of this dish, but a change is always good, and these were thoroughly enjoyed.
Si4 chuan1 liang2 mian4 (Sichuan Cold Noodles) should have came last in the meal, but came directly following the appetizers. These were extremely good --- while the noodles themselves were nothing special, they were cooked to the right consistency and the mixture of hot oil, scallions, vinegar, crushed peanuts, and sesame oil that enveloped them was properly balanced.
fei4 teng2 yu2 (Sliced Fish Sauce Soup) was spicy and flavorful with a variety of vegetables, including fresh bean sprouts and scallions floating in the red broth, along with sliced white fish and chunks of silken tofu. Unfortunately, in the very large bowl of soup, there was precious little fish.
Chong2 qing4 la4 zi ji1 (Chong Qing Spicy Chicken) was the most disappointing dish. The "popcorns" of chicken were overly greasy and fried, inexplicably sweet instead of spicy, there were not nearly enough la4 jiao1 (hot peppers) and no discernable taste of hua1 jiao1 (Sichuan peppers), so this dish was neither ma2 (numbing) nor la4 (spicy). I believe I had the Gui Zhou chicken here on another occasion several months ago that I found to be much more interesting.
hui2 guo1 niu2 (Double Cooked Beef) was, along with the cucumber, the highlight of the evening. A terrific variant of the traditional twice-cooked pork, this dish doesn't merely substitute beef for pork in the traditional recipe but re-balances the tastes, while using the method of twice cooking. The result are unusually succulent slices of beef, layered amongst sliced scallions. I couldn't get enough of this dish.
ma2 po2 dou4 fu (Ma Po To Fu) was the only legitimately spicy dish of the evening. It didn't radiate complex layers of flavor like the best mapo tofu can, but it packed a strong punch and had a very pleasing texture.
suan4 chao3 dou4 miao2 (Sautéed Pea Shoots w. Fresh Garlic) was a fine dish, nothing remarkable, but good sautéed vegetables in a sauce that wasn't too heavy. To be clear, this was the dark green leafy part of the dou4 miao2, not the delicate stems.
jiang1 cong1 shao1 nan2 gua1 (Braised Pumpkin with Ginger and Scallion) was a most interesting and unusual dish, being carefully cut little cubes of pumpkin, softened, and mixed with a light touch of ginger and a lighter touch of scallion. The knife work was terrific, and the balance of flavors between the pumpkin and ginger was handled just right. My complaint is about the texture of this dish -- some cubes of pumpkin were unpleasantly hard, while others seemed cooked unevenly. Several other people at the table found this to be the highlight of the evening.
pao1 jiang1 bao4 ya1 si1 (Shredded Duck with Fresh Ginger) were terrific, flavorful shreds of quite fatty duck mixed with a variety of vegetables. Ginger was discernable, but not dominant, and excellent knife work on both the duck and vegetables produced a smooth texture. It also looked beautiful on the plate, even with out the turnip-flower decoration (itself also beautiful, although someone cheated with two hidden toothpicks and a judiciously placed rubber band!)
The menu has some standard Sichuan choices, and also some decidedly non-standard and creative choices. Not everything was perfect, but there's clearly someone of great skill behind the knife work in the kitchen, and behind balancing many complex flavors. Despite ordering several dishes that should have been very spicy, nothing was particularly hot and the characteristic numbing of Sichuan peppercorns was utterly missing.
As for service, everyone was unfailingly nice, but also quite confused. It is admittedly difficult to attend to a party of seventeen, especially when the rest of the restaurant is quite full. So I can understand if sometimes our water glasses weren't refilled (sometimes they weren't), if the teapots weren't often refilled with hot water (they weren't), or if we had to ask for small bowls for the fei4 teng2 yu2 (we did --- twice) and if even still only half the table received them (indeed only half did, but there wasn't enough fish in the two large bowls for more than half the table anyway). But several dishes that we ordered never appeared, others only appeared once, despite us ordering two of everything, and even though it was obvious that one copy of each dish should be delivered to each side of the table, sometimes two copies ended up on one side.
I did want to comment on something else entirely as well. Several of the servers were not Chinese. I'm surprised, because I have almost never seen that in any authentic Chinese restaurant in the United States. That can be just fine, but I wonder if those servers' lack of familiarity with Chinese cuisine led to dropped dishes, confusion over things like not bringing out vinegar with the scallion pancakes, bringing the noodles and rice out first, not bringing out bowls with the soup and so on.
All in all, we had a wonderful evening, and more food than we could eat for still less than $25/pp.
With Grand Sichuan the key seems to be judicious ordering, something that Chowhound can help with quite a bit. Some dishes were truly excellent and others uninspired. With a smaller party one's experience can vary dramatically on which dishes were ordered. I especially recommend the cucumber, cold noodles, double cooked beef, and shredded duck. Scallion pancakes, pea shoots and the pumpkin were fine choices as well.
15 7th Ave S, New York, NY 10014