Went to Grand Sichuan International (the one on 9th Ave. @ 50th St.) with a couple of friends last night. This is becoming my favorite restaurant in Manhattan, for a variety of reasons--I LOVE Sichuan food, their menu has a huge variety of dishes, and the quality, while not perfectly consistent, is high. Also, if I go a bit after their evening rush, I feel quite comfortable dining alone, which I end up doing a lot. (I think I ate there 4 times last week, and I don't live anywhere near there!)
It was good to go with a couple of friends for a change, since we could sample a wider variety of things. They are not quite as adventurous in ordering as I tend to be, so it was also good that we ordered some of the more standard dishes that I hadn't got around to trying yet (I always have to try the weird-sounding things).
If you're at all inclined, definitely start with one of the cold appetizers there....we had the "shredded chicken with spicy sauce"--excellent (second only to the version at Wu Liang Ye on 48th St., which they call "hand-shredded chicken with spicy sesame vinaigrette"). The night before I had cold dish that was truly sensational: beef tendon with hot and pepper sauce. Beef tendon isn't quite as scary as it sounds--someone somewhere (on this board?) described it as being a bit like pastrami trimmings, and that's a good description: translucent bits, some streaked with meat, with a sort of springy, slightly elastic texture....amazingly, the overall effect is one of lightness (this is a perfect hot weather dish). The red-hot-oil-based sauce is the perfect foil for the relatively bland bits of tendon.
Then we had a bunch of entrees. Their ma po tofu (which they call "house bean curd with spicy sauce") is easily the best I've ever had....the sauce was rich, subtle and complex (vegetarians, this dish has minced pork in it). The dry sauteed string beans were also really wonderful....tender, flavorful, with tiny bits of minced pork and Sichuan preserved vegetable clinging to them. From the section of the menu called "Mao's home cooking" (I've loved everything I've tried from that section....and Mao refers to a character from legend, not Mao Tse Tung!), we had cured pork with garlic shoots. The pork in question is belly (the same cut bacon is made from, but in this case the curings produces a totally different end effect), sliced and sauteed with the garlice shoots. A very simple dish, and great comfort food (this is particularly nice reheated for breakfast!).
The one dish where a slight bit of inconsistency was noticeable is the smoked tea duck. I had ordered this before and, while I enjoyed it, it did not blow me away. Last night it was sensational. No other way to describe it.
My other favorite section of their menu is "fresh chicken special", meaning the dishes are prepared with freshly-killed chicken and not the pre-packaged stuff. I seem to order the Au-zhou chicken every other time I go there.
For some reason, contrary to received restaurant knowledge, I have found Monday nights to be especially GOOD nights at GSI. Perhaps it's that the slightly more relaxed pace allows for more attention in the kitchen....dunno.