Last week, the Village Voice’s Robert Sietsema published his latest list of the ten best Chinese restaurants in the city, nine of which I had never even heard of. That fact will tell you, right up front, my qualifications for reviewing Szechuan Gourmet on 56th Street, which weighed in at #7. If the list had been French or Italian, I most likely would have heard of all, and been to most of them.
It’s not that Chinese cuisine is unfamiliar to me—I’ve probably had it hundreds of times. But I haven’t made a point of seeking out the kinds of places Sietsema does.
So, why did I visit #7 on his list? Convenience was one reason: it’s the only one he listed that’s in Manhattan north of Canal Street, and while I don’t mind a trip to Chinatown or the outer boroughs, on this night proximity was king. The other reason was that I’d at least heard of Szechuan Gourmet, thanks to Frank Bruni’s two-star review of the 39th Street outpost in 2008. (There is also a branch in Flushing; the 56th Street restaurant opened last year.)
The menu meanders, as it does at many Chinese restaurants, with over a hundred items in ten categories. You can be a wimp, and order General Tso’s Chicken or Moo Shu Pork. You can also order duck tongues, pig kidneys, intestines (of an unspecified animal), and eel threads (whatever that means). We ordered between those extremes, choosing the hottest dishes we could find.
Szechuan Pork Dumplings ($5.95; above left) with roasted chili soy came—most unusually—in a bowl. They were more delicate and far less greasy than the dumplings most Chinese restaurants serve. Spicy Hot & Sour Cellophane Noodles ($6.95; above right), floating in an intense chili oil, were a challenge to eat, but rewarding all the same.
There are four versions of Braised Whole Black Bass ($21.95; above) on the menu, varying only in how spicy they are. We ordered the hottest of these, to the point that the taste of the fish was nearly obliterated. Best we could tell, the bass had been cooked perfectly, but at certain levels of heat it becomes nearly impossible to say. But the dish was irresistible. With a couple of appetizers and a vegetable, it could really be an entrée for two.
The kitchen did a beautiful job with Sautéed Broccoli in Spicy Garlic Sauce ($10.95; above left). By this time, we were too full to appreciate Crispy Boneless Duck ($17.95; above right), but that is no fault of the dish, which was as well prepared as everything we tried.
The service was a cut above most Chinese restaurants in the city. Without prompting, servers poured beer and replaced both plates and flatware between courses—amenities that, at other kinds of restaurants, would pass without mention. The timing of each course was just about right (the usual problem is the food arriving all at once).
The space is not luxurious, but it is a lot nicer than most of those on Sietsema’s list (he is not really an “ambiance” kind of guy). The tables and banquetts are comfortable, and there is a handsome bar. You could bring a date here, as long as you don’t mind smelling like chili powder afterwards.
We walked in on a Saturday evening without a reservation (I don’t know if they’re even taken) and were seated immediately. The restaurant was around 90 percent full, with a mixture of local couples, tourists, and families.
I’m not qualified to put Szechuan Gourmet in relation to the other places on Sietsema’s list, but this is certainly very good Chinese food, and well worth a visit.
Szechuan Gourmet (242 W. 56th Street, east of Eighth Avenue, West Midtown)