26 Corrs Lane
Melbourne VIC 3000
Tel: (03) 9650 8589
There is something scintillating about super spicy food that burns your tongue and make your lips tingle. The hesitation to wipe your mouth in case the spiciness spreads beyond the perimeters of your lips and the hot sensation lingers at the edges giving a feeling of itchiness prickles on skin that is not as hardened to the kill of spicy food as the lips. But somehow, these cuisines always leave me wanting more when the stomach settles and what's left is nothing but a mild cool whiff as I inhale a breath of fresh air through my mouth and into the deep canal of a boiling cauldron.
Blame it on Foxtel in Australia if you will. One of S and my favourite programs, Anthony Bourdain - No Reservation, was slow in showing here. We knew through various blogs that he has indeed visited Melbourne (ahem, his FAVOURITE Australian city as he has stressed rightfully many times, take that Sydney) for his 6th season. We also knew it had been shown in the US ages ago, as well as Mr Cravat, Matt Preston, from Masterchef bringing Tony around. Suffice to say we've been waiting forever to watch Bourdain's latest culinary adventures with his usual mix of morose and self-deprecating commentary that finally last week I had enough.
After countless repeats of past seasons and the current showing being Season 4 (yes, season 4! despite the US having already shown Season 6 waaay before), I had to succumb to the unscrupulous but extremely satisfying addiction of online TV shows download. Not to mention the fact that I was dying to watch Matt Preston in another program after my obsession with Masterchef here (Gary Mehigan was in Boys' Weekend with a few of his other mates who's appeared on the show like Manu and Adrian Richardson). Matt, my other favourite, he of the line "because I like you Andre, I'm swallowing it", was meant to be one of the food guides for Bourdain when he came here. By the way, he didn't actually bring Bourdain to the secret Sichuan province in Melbourne, but a Malaysian called Tony Tan. However, Matt did show that it is possible to wear a cravat in hot stinky summer and hold up well in his sweat-stained Polo Ralph Lauren shirts. A man after my heart, suffer for fashion like you would for art.
That said, Tony Tan a man who professed to be scared of Bourdain because of his flagrant use of the F-word (well he must be a very timid man seeing as 99% of the Aussie population regularly mouth off the F-word and more all the time), brought Bourdain to a place in Chinatown called Dainty Sichuan. Having watched with fascination as Bourdain sweated through several dried chilli mountains of various meat dishes, and yet proclaiming a macabre insistence that he wants more and he's never had it so good, our mouths started to salivate and therein a plan formed to visit that restuarant that very Friday.
Full of optimism and a sick excitement of having our brains and mouths blown off with spicy food beyond the normal realms of other spicy food, we trudged down the end of Corrs Lane in Chinatown off Little Bourke to see a long queue waiting outside the address I copied for Dainty Sichuan. To our surprise, it must have changed ownership because the place is now called Sichuan House. Well, okaaay, seeing that the number of people queueing outside can't be wrong, we joined the queue. A quick google on my mobile shows that the owners of Dainty Sichuan has left the building but experienced restauranteur Peter Hu who also owns another Sichuan restaurant in Box Hill has taken over the joint. He kept most of the kitchen and wait staff from Dainty Sichuan and the menu remains largely unchanged. Well, good enough for me. Now I don't really believe in queueing up for hours on end but my obsession with satisfying the Sichuan urge was so strong that night, S and I waited with our friend Daniel for almost an hour outside the restaurant for a table.
Finally we scored an entry to the Spicy Mecca, and looking at the sweaty, drippy-nosed faces of happiness around us, I beamed in excitement and anticipation at the menu. True enough I was not disappointed. The staple of Sichuan cuisine, Deep-fried Chicken Pieces (with bones) tossed with gallons of Dried Chillies was on the menu. We ordered that, as well as for entree, Cold Soft Tofu with Minced Century Egg. For mains we really wanted to try their famous Pork Ribs, but it was sold out so we ordered the Spicy Green Beans with Minced Pork as well as Daniel's selection of Sliced Beef in Spicy Hot Pot.
I didn't manage to take a pic of the entree but here's how it went down:
Cold Tofu with Minced Century Egg - This dish was extraordinary good. The tofu came entire but was sliced and drenched with an amazing gravy. Judging from the strong smell and taste of ginger and garlic, my guess is that the sauce was made up of those 2 essential Chinese ingredients mixed with oyster sauce that has been diluted so it takes away the sometimes overpoweringly saltish flavour. What remained was a gooey light brown sauce that leaves a pleasant fragrance of ginger as you exhale through your nose and the garlicky aftertaste that was actually pretty mild. As you go through the rest of the meal, you'll find yourself coming back to nibble at this dish which takes the bite out of the rest of the sizzling spiciness of the other dishes and provides a cool respite as you charge on with the rest of the food. The century egg mince was reasonable in quantity but I would really treat it as more of a garnish. The egg itself was lacking in the strong pungent flavour we tend to expect from century eggs and was kinda hard and gelatin-like. The tofu on the other hand was soft and melts in your mouth providing the perfect complement to the delightful sauce. But it's not too soft that it disintegrates as you pick it up with the metal spoon.
We ordered steamed rice to go with our dishes but strangely despite the spicy nature of the food, we did not go rushing to gulp a mouthful of rice down with every bite.
Deep-Fried Chicken Piece with Dried Chillies - To me, this is the piece de resistance of the dinner. When the owner of Dainty Sichuan told Bourdain they go through at least 20kg of dried chillies every single day, it is not hard to guess why when you see a dish like this.
At first glance, your impression that the whole plate is mainly made up of dried chillies are probably to be expected, but what we realised at the end of it was there were actually more chicken pieces that we first thought. There was still a massive amount of dried chillies left, but the extremely generous portion of this main dish ensures that there were more than enough chicken to go around. The dish contained mainly of dried chillies and chicken pieces, but there were some peppercorns and spring onion stems to be found within the hot mess. We can also distinctly taste the garlic that goes into it as well. What really impressed me was the lack of chilli seeds that other Sichuan restaurants seem to heap on this signature dish. Yet despite the lack of chilli seeds which I'm really relieved about (hate the little seeds sticking inside my teeth and on every surface of the chicken), the dish certainly packed a bigger punch than all the other similiar dishes I've tried in Melbourne. It does not shy away from their trademark spicy quotient even without the good ol' trick of chilli seeds employed by many others.
The chicken pieces were presumably chopped up tiny pieces of chicken wings with bones still intact. I can taste the lingering taste of flavour that only well-marinated chicken provides and the rough sea salt sprinkled on the deep-fried surface of the chicken. The crunch of the chicken was actually a nice surprise. It was crispy without the sickly feeling of being too oily. The heat of the chicken maintained pretty well temperature-wise under the mountain of dried chillies and in a way, it was advantageous as this chicken is definitely nicer taken warm. I love the bite of the tiny chicken pieces as the juices flowed into your mouths when you bite past the crispiness of the skin and into the succulent fleshy bits. Sichuan House has managed to maintain that oh-so-important criteria of deep-fried chicken with their balance of crispiness and the amount of greasiness from the chicken. Oddly enough, after you have more than a few pieces of this dish, you don't even realise the hotness of the chicken anymore. In fact, you start to notice the flavours that came from the chicken, the natural juices, the subtle sprinkling of sea salt to coat the chicken pieces and the heady smell of such a fine dish. Hardened fans of Sichuan food will not be disappointed as this dish was done to near perfection with the right mix of flavours and ingredients to leave you wanting more.
Spicy Green Beans with Minced Pork - Next up to arrive was the Spicy Green Beans. I love the unpretentiousness of the place and their plating of their dishes. It was non-fussy and it is what it is. They do not cater for a fine-dining crowd and neither do they aspire to. Judging from the crowd outside queueing throughout the day, they are on to a good thing. The Green Beans arrived glistening slightly with oil and some finely minced pork and chilli.
The pork has definitely been seasoned and although tasty, did not take away the spotlight from the star of this dish. The green beans were fresh and a little suspiciously sweet. I was wondering whether the chefs could have soaked them in a bit of sweetened water as part of their prep. Anyhow, it doesn't matter, the combination of flavours was just divine and very complementary. The saltishness of the minced pork and chilli couple with the sweetnes and the beautiful texture of the green beans was just nothing short of amazing. Like the chicken above, this dish is a must-have everytime you visit Sichian House. Every crunch of the beans deliver a mixture of sweet and savory spiciness.
Sliced Beef in Hot Pot - Straight up this was the only and most disappointing dish of the night. It was somewhat soupy with huge quanties of not just whole dried chillies and peppercorn, but it also came with a chilli soup stock which was not thick enough to be gravy but not enough liquid to be soup.
The first thing you notice is the perfumey smell of the dish, and you are wondering what the hell is up with that. Hoping that this was perhaps a temporary assault of the nasal sense and all will be fine upon tasting, I was rudely awakened by an even more pungent perfumey sampling of the beef. Trying to find the culprit for this weird taste considering perfume fragrance is not generally the preferred flavour, S discovered after bravely chewing on the different ingredients of the dish that is hardly discernible through the inferno of red soupy mess, that the strange perfume taste and smell comes from the peppercorns which were a lot more liberally used in this dish. Not wanting to waste the beef, S gallantly took as much as he could stomach so Daniel and I could enjoy the rest of the more delicious dishes. Even though Daniel chose this dish on the menu, he didn't really enjoy it much at all when it came and much preferred the other stuff we had to eat. I personally would not have chosen this dish, it looked unappetising even from the menu. But each one of us is meant to choose a dish each so it's only fair. Besides, at least now we know what NOT to order next time. The beef was not particularly tender and the soupy thing was just bland and filled with hotness without flavour. With such a lack of proper and tasty seasoning and marinade, it pretty much tasted like a perfume version of someone dunking sliced beef into water filled with dried chillies, peppercorns and forgetting to add the salt. No no no...
Guess where are are going tomorrow?
Update 1 May 2013 - We have been advised Sichuan House at Corrs Lane, Melbourne is now closed. They do however have another branch on Victoria St in Richmond.
Melbourne, the food capital of Australia, where multi-cultural cuisines reign supreme. You've arrived at a food blog where good food has no boundaries - be it restaurants, cafes, takeaway joints and any other eating places. Recipes to try out with successes and failures blogged to no shame. The focus is on authentic Asian (Singapore) food found right here in the heart of Melbourne. Just remember, the best dining experience could surprise your tastebuds when you least expect it. Get ready to be surprised on my food journey. Bon Appétit!