Grand Sichuan St. Mark's
19-23 St. Mark's Place (between Second and Third), tel. 212 529-4800
The newest branch of Manhattan's finest Sichuan restaurants (minus the unrelated and iffy Grand Sichuan on Canal Street), this one opened three days ago. The menu features more Hunan specialities than the other locations, and they certainly are a nice addition to the usual Sichuan favorites. The owner, who I spoke with a few weeks ago at the Ninth Avenue @ West 24th Street branch, decided to turn this location into a Mao Zedong shrine of sorts. There are Mao photos, postcards, sculptures, wall hangings, really the memorabilia of the sort you can buy all over China, along with some of his interesting photo captions. While this concept is not entirely new (some of you will know of Mao-themed places in Hong Kong, for example), the waitresses' olive-green uniforms and caps are alternately amusing and bizarre, hilarious and terrifying. Of course these waitresses are smiling and happy, yet you can't help but be reminded of the Red Guards. Or maybe Li Feng instead? Your decision. Either way, they certainly take Mao's edict to "serve the people" to heart; three of them were very chatty with the tables of both Chinese and non-Chinese diners, recommending dishes and talking about the menu. (In fact, we saw the tonight's hostess at St. Mark's over at the Second Avenue location during lunch on Wednesday, and she gave us two great recommendations tonight.) The glass display case near the entrance recalls the famous edict that all revolutionaries eat spicy food, and photographs of some of the dishes certainly get your appetite going. My Tibetan pal, whose ancestral homeland is located in northern Sichuan province, thought the beef with spicy peppery sauce and the GuiZhou spicy beef could have been a little more spicy, but both were delicious, absolutely as good as it gets in New York. The dan dan noodles were just fine, and we thought the minced chicken with green pepper and vegetables was terrific, although perhaps not quite as finely minced as some people might like. My prediction: go there now before the place gets packed solid with the heavily pierced and tattooed crowd, who will doubtless find the Mao theme highly amusing. (Whether they know any modern Chinese history, of course, is anyone's guess.) The restaurant is located in the very building where my punk pal Richard used to hang out on the staircase in 1984, snapping at tourists who tried to take his picture. How times have changed on St. Mark's Place!