Szechuan Gourmet: Day 1 as a NYT 2 Starred Restaurant
After Frank Bruni awarded Szechuan Gourmet 2 stars in yesterday’s New York Times, I panicked. Of course I was excited for the place, but a lot of that excitement merely served to hide an underlying fear. I will never be able to eat lunch in Szechuan Gourmet again. And even if I could get in, would it still be the same? Doesn’t Wu Liang Ye (on 48th btw. 5+6th) and all the rest of the Midtown Chinese dinosaurs have New York Times articles in their windows? And look at them now. Not terrible, but shells of their former selves. Granted, those articles were from 1984, but who’s counting.
With all this in mind we rushed over to Grand Szechuan for lunch yesterday, mere hours from the time that Bruni’s accolades were made public, super curious over what we would find. Pandemonium? Sub par food from a cocky overwhelmed kitchen? Mass hysteria? As I walked up 39th St. I noticed a few people with dejected looks on their faces carrying take out menus back to their office. Not a good sign.
At 12:30 the wait for a table was 30 minutes, and the scene was pretty hectic (although not much different from a normal day around 1pm.) Tons of take out orders were being picked up, and I heard it mentioned that the phones had been ringing off the hook all morning. Oh right… take out orders. You don’t have to wait for a table, you can just call ahead and pick up your lunch. Maybe things are going to be ok.
But on this day, we decided to wait- and for that patience we were rewarded with a meal that confirms Szechuan Gourmet as hands down the best Chinese restaurant in Midtown. Bruni or no Bruni. From 11:30 to 3:30pm SG offers a lunch menu where everything is $6.95 to $9.95, but I would recommend going to withas many people as possible, and mixing up some lunch specials with some of the Szechuan delicacies and appetizers (most of which are well below $10.) This way you can sample a ton of stuff, but still keep the tab under $10 per person.
The lunch special comes with your choice of soup, and to answer the commenter from yesterday- the wontonsoup is excellent. Seriously. While most places give you dish water, you can tell that this soup (actually, bothsoups for that matter) was made with some serious time and care. The broth is outstanding, and has a barely noticeable kick- getting you ready for the pain to come.
In addition to the two lunch specials we ordered two appetizers off the Szechuan Delicacies menu:
The Chef’s Sichuan Pickle ($3.95 $4.50**) was amazing. Very lightly pickled and super spicy, I could tell this would be a nice complement to some of the more greasy dishes we would be getting later. For $4.50, how can you not?
Thin sliced beef tendon w/ roasted chili vinaigrette ($7.95 $8.95**). I remember the first time I heard about Szechuan Gourmet. It was from a co-worker named John who told me about this amazingly authentic Chinese food restaurant witha special “hidden” Sichuan menu where you could find all the good stuff. Duck tongue, jelly fish, thousand year old eggs, and most importantly beef tendon. Seeing as how much I love the sauteed beef tendon at Sake Bar Hagi (48th btw. 6+7th), I knew that this would be my favorite dish at SG. Sort of like a slightly rubbery proscuitto, the beef tendon is cut paper thin and served cold, covered in an oily hot dressing. If you are even mildly adventurous, I would definitely recommend this dish.
On to the two lunch specials…
Braised Ma “Paul” Tofu with Chili Minced Pork ($6.95 $7.40**) or as I like to call it- lake of fire. Don’t let the funny typo fool you, the guy who invented this dish was certainly not named Paul. This thing tasted exactly the way it looked. So spicy, but so freaking good. I usually prefer my tofu to be fried, but the ground pork made up for it- that and the fact that I could only eat a few spoonfulls before my face burned off. (Note: My face didn’t actually burn off, and in retrospect people who love super super spicy foods may not find this as hot as I did. I’m just a wuss. A very-sweaty-at-the-end-of-the-meal wuss.)
Double cooked Sliced Pork Belly w/ Chili Leeks ($6.95 $7.40**). Also know as “the star of the show”. I’m guessing that this is the most ordered lunch special on the Szechuan Gourmet menu (and I’m not just saying that because it’s listed first.) Is there anything better than good pork belly? Half meat, half fat- and the SG version is cooked so perfectly. Not too crispy but not too mushy. The perfect middle ground, and if you like leeks (giant green onions) than you’re really in for a special treat. I could eat this every single day for lunch.
A good amount of food for four people, the bill with tip came out to $42 (50 cents apiece over the Midtown Lunch price limit, and worth every single penny), but you can definitely order differently and come out with more food for the same price. Either way, there is no question the more, the merrier.
By 1:30pm there were open tables, and no wait, so clearly I probably overreacted. And if you don’t want to wait to have a later lunch, there is always the take out option. It looks like we’re going to be alright… until they raise their prices.
Today’s +/- is pretty easy… keep in mind, these aren’t the goods and bads. It’s more like a how to determine whether or not you’re going to like this place…
The + (What somebody who likes this place would say)
- “I love spicy authentic Szechuan cuisine, and want to eat the best version Midtown has to offer”
The – (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say)
- “Do they have beef with broccoli?”
- We will also accept “I don’t really like spicy food” a correct answer.
- And… “What’s pork belly? That doesn’t sound good to me.”
- Oooh, there’s also… “I ordered the sweet and sour chicken, and don’t see what the big deal is.”
- (This really could go on forever and ever…)
Szechuan Gourmet, 21 W. 39th St. (btw. 5+6th), 212-921-0233
** I double checked my receipt and realized that the prices on the dine in menu (which I paid) are more expensive than the prices listed on the take out menu. Sorry for the confusion.