Last year, I visited Szechuan Gourmet on 56th Street, the newest branch of that venerable and successful chainlet. I wanted to try the 39th Street branch that had won two stars from Frank Bruni in 2008.
On a menu with 100 items and numerous daily specials, it is impossible to draw definitive conclusions from just two dishes. Nevertheless, we liked Szechuan Gourmet 39 much less than SG 56.
I thought that Sun-Dried Pork Belly with Leeks ($14.95; above left) might be the pork belly dish that Bruni liked. On re-reading, I am not sure, because Bruni called it an appetizer and didn’t mention leeks. This was apparently meant to be an entrée, but it is not really a successful one. The bacon was cloying and a bit too greasy. It needed heat or textural contrast, which the leeks didn’t supply.
My son ordered less adventurously, choosing Prawns in Spicy Garlic Sauce ($20.95; above right), a dish offered (in some form) at every Chinese restaurant in town. This was certainly a much higher quality version of it.
If I cannot offer a definitive comparision of the food between the two Szechuan Gourmet branches, I can certainly say that 39th Street is a far less pleasant space than 56th Street. No one would call the uptown branch elegant, but it feels like a restaurant, a place you wouldn’t mind lingering in. Here, you order, you eat, you leave.
At 8:00 p.m. on the Sunday evening of a holiday weekend, when many New Yorkers were out of town, we waited about 10–15 minutes to be seated in a full dining room. Service was inattentive, although the food came out promptly.
There is certainly more of the menu I would like to try, but as more-or-less the same menu is available at 56th Street, I think I’ll go there.
Szechuan Gourmet (21 W. 39th St. between Fifth & Sixth Avenues, West Midtown)