My wife and I decided to celebrate the end of Restaurant Week (and the end of a horrific run of work and house renovation) with a long overdue visit to Sichuan Gourmet, which a number of people on this board have trumped as the bee's knees when it comes to Sichuan cookery.
We arrived at about 6 pm on a Sunday night, sandwiched between two Chinese families. So far, so good. The seating was rapid, and my Caucasian wife was charmingly handed a fork, while I (Chinese-American) was left with chopsticks, another promising sign of an old-school, real-deal Chinese restaurant. Sadly, it was more or less downhill from there.
I mentioned to the waitress that my wife and I had spent a year living in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province and probably one of the seats of some of the most insanely blow-your-brains-out spicy food on the planet. I mentioned that we had loved the blend of spicy and numbing that is characteristic of Sichuan cookery, and that we could put up with the worst that most Chinese restaurants could offer in terms of heat. We settled down, then, to a mix of some favorite Sichuan chestnuts and some items I hadn't seen before, but noticed on their menu.
We began with the chili oil dumplings (hong-you chao-shou). The dumplings themselves were quite good, a nice delicate wonton type skin wrapped around a juicy, tasty pork filling. The sauce was decent - had a modest kick in the hot department, a nice hit of raw garlic and some sugar to provide contrast. Comparable in my mind to the chao-shou that I've had at Chilli Garden, but the best that I've had in the States (Sichuan Garden in Brookline, Qun Li's Rice Garden and New Taste of Asia in Brookline - RIP, Clinton's Taste of China in CT), there was an extra level of depth and complexity to the sauce that I didn't get in this stuff.
For the mains, we had a Shanghai bok choy (suan4-chao Shanghai-cai), with the bok choy cut up into slivers and stir fried in garlic and oil. Not bad, a good basic restaurant staple. The guo-ba (hai-xian guo-ba) offered solid rice krispy-type rice and a decent mix of seafood in a white sauce. The Sichuan heavyweight dishes came up short, though: the ma-po dou-fu tasted merely spicy (though even that not much -- "Where's the heat?" asked my wife tauntingly), with a slight hint of black bean sauce, very little of the pork that I was specifically asked if I wanted added to the dish, and a barely visible dusting of Sichuan peppercorn that didn't register at all in terms of numbness. The three-pepper chicken (san-jiao gan-bian-ji) was the best dish of a disappointing evening, slivers of chicken and bell peppers mixed up with some chili peppers and again hypothetically, Sichuan peppercorns. The first three elements were decent enough, though it also wasn't lethally hot, and the Sichuan peppercorns were nonexistent. The specials menu featured a Chengdu ma-la-yang (numbing and spicy lamb) which was above-average cuts of lamb meat smothered in chili sauce, and again with very little to speak of in terms of Sichuan peppercorns. My wife, who doesn't normally go in for the blow-your-head-off spice, ate all of the dishes with no difficulty whatsoever, and was no more impressed by the subtlety or depth of flavor than I was.
I thought we might rescue the evening with an unusual offering on the dessert menu - tang-yuan, or glutinous rice balls stuffed with sweet black sesame paste. In China, tang-yuan are usually boiled up in a little rice wine (mi-jiu) and wolf berries (gou-ji) and are a traditional favorite at the Lantern Festival (first full moon after New Year, which is when the real party starts). In the US, most restaurants don't make the stuff, and most of us Chinese satisfy our need for a fix by buying frozen packages of ready-made tang-yuan from a Chinese supermarket, then heating them up in boiling water at home. This stuff that we were served up tasted more like the latter -- the balls were served up in the (flavorless) water that they were boiled in (God help you if you breached the ball and it leaked into the water - wouldn't taste anything at that point). The balls were a shade better than the ones I usually get from the Super 88, but hardly what I would expect from a great Chinese restaurant.
I'm not sure what went wrong -- maybe I ordered the wrong dishes. Perhaps the waitress got stuck on the notion that we lived in Hunan, and the chef served up la (spicy, though it wasn't even very la) without the ma (numbing). But I wasn't impressed by the flavor. I wasn't blown away by knifework that was noticeably different from Sichuan Garden or Qingdao Garden or any of a host of other decent Chinese restaurants in the greater Boston area. I was impressed that the food struck me as similar to what I had at the now fired-out Szechwan Bay in Somerville (decent, but would have to beg and plead in front of the chef to get something almost in the ballpark of Sichuan Garden). The fact that the Szechwan Bay chef was a Sichuan Gourmet veteran makes this comparison plausible.
I'm willing to try to be convinced that I somehow got snookered -- I would be curious to hear what dishes I was a rank fool not to try when I was there (and it'll have to be something other than fatty pork, which I ate more than enough of in a year in China). But it's going to take an awful lot of convincing to get me to regularly drive an hour out of my way to Framingham or Billerica to eat at either of these places. Or to keep me from continuing to steer Sichuan-peppercorn-addicted 'hounders in the direction of Brookline Village and Clinton CT.