Thursday, October 4, 2007

Dainty Sichuan

26 Corrs Lane, Melbourne

Co-diners: Joo-Hyung, Sonja, Hung, Sang-Ghi, Carissa, Ava & Lux.
I had been waiting a long time to investigate the ridiculously named Dainty Sichuan, which is something of a Melbourne institution - I've heard it described as having the hottest food of any restaurant in town. And given that one such report came from an Indonesian, I was reluctant to question him. In any case it is one of the few places here that specialises in authentic Sichuan-style cooking.

It's hardly a fancy place, and looks similar to most of the other eateries that lurk in the alleys of Chinatown. Despite being booked out this Saturday night, we managed to convince them to give us a table; they just took the "reserved" sign off our table and figured they would sort it out later when the group who made the reservation arrived. It struck me as quintessentially Chinese, finding some way to accommodate more paying customers.

One of the first things to do after ordering your food is to prepare the right drinks for the occasion. We found the chilled jasmine milk tea (pictured) to be the perfect beverage for countering the spiciness of the food here.

The dishes we ordered included the poetically-titled "Ants Climbing Trees", which is actually cellophane noodles with minced pork; the famous Sichuan dish Ma-Po Dofu; some kind of beef stew with a mass Sichuan peppercorns floating on top; and the signature dish, Chongqing Chilli Chicken, which consists of a plate piled high with fried dried chillies with a few small chunks of chicken scattered throughout it.

The vegetarian selection isn't huge, but does contain a mild stir-fry of bean curd strips with Chinese chives, and an outstanding dish of eggplant with garlic and chili oil, which drips and zings with flavour.

After the meal, we sat in a food-induced stupor, feeling satisfied by great food yet somewhat unsettled by the sheer spiciness. Unlike, say, Indian food, the heat of the food is more than just the sharp kick of chilli; it's the numbing sensation imparted by the Sichuan pepper that sneaks up on you which is the real killer - in a nice way. I actually love the feeling, and was happily picking away at leftover peppercorns at the amazement of some of my fellow diners. In hindsight I think it was one of those displays of machismo us guys are so fond of.

Dainty is a must-try experience for daring diners. I give it 3 and a half Sichuan peppercorns out of 5.

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