Entries in Szechuan Gourmet (4)


Szechuan Gourmet (39th Street)

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)

Food: *
Service: Fair
Ambiance: Fair
Overall: *


Szechuan Gourmet

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)

Food: **
Service: **
Ambiance: *
Overall: **


The Payoff: Szechuan Gourmet

Was there ever any doubt? Yesterday, Frank Bruni awarded two stars to Szechuan Gourmet. Its flaws are considerable. The menu rambles (over 100 items), it’s not as good as Spicy & Tasty in Queens (also two stars), and:

It has its limitations: no hard liquor, a short list of wines you won’t yearn to drink, an even shorter list of desserts so negligible that servers don’t bother to ask if you want one before dropping the check. Meals here can be rushed, especially at lunch, when the restaurant is busiest.

But somehow it manages two stars anyway. It’s a pretty sure bet that Frank will do that when he’s in his “$25 & Under” mood, so we and Eater both win our hypothetical one-dollar bets at 2–1 odds.

              Eater          NYJ
Bankroll $95.50   $119.67
Gain/Loss +2.00   +2.00
Total $97.50   $121.67
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 45–21   48–18

Rolling the Dice: Szechuan Gourmet

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews Szechuan Gourmet. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 12-1
One Star: 4-1
Two Stars: 2-1 √√
Three Stars: 8-1
Four Stars: 900-1

The Skinny: We’ve never been to Szechuan Gourmet (we know, we know…fifty lashes with a wet noodle), but Eater’s analysis is compelling. We’re not aware of a previous Times review, so there’s no existing rating that cries out for correction. Therefore, the only conceivable point of the review is that Bruni has something compelling to say. What could that be? In a city where zero-star Chinese is on almost every block, and one-star Chinese is in almost every neighborhood, two stars is the realistic minimum that could be worth calling attention to.

We assume that three-star restaurants don’t hide in plain sight, and in any case Bruni isn’t going to award the trifecta two weeks in a row. That leaves two stars as the only possibility.

The Bet: We agree with Eater that Frank Bruni will award two stars to Szechuan Gourmet.