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Legend Bar and Restaurant

The New York Times | Updated: 2012-04-06 14:11

Legend Bar and Restaurant

The hot and spicy crispy prawns at Legend.[Photo/The New York Times]

LEGEND Bar and Restaurant, a Sichuan restaurant in Chelsea, circled the block for months before parking in its current spot as one of the city's top Chinese destinations.

Last year, Ming Xing Wang and his partner, Legend's chef, bought the space, then styled as a pan-Asian lounge; they were determined not to make changes until the restaurant had been absorbed by the neighborhood. "This is not a Chinese area," Mr. Wang said, gesturing out the door to upscale design shops and a branch of Loehmann's.

To the mystification of the city's Sichuan food cultists, they continued serving summer rolls and shu mai, all the while putting out word in the Chinese community about the Sichuan cuisine being cooked by the chef Ding Gen Wang, a master who cooked most recently at Grand Sichuan Eastern in Midtown. Despite the confusion and a vast menu still larded with distractions, the aromatic, spicy Sichuan food actually cooked by Chef Wang here is often unbelievably good.

That, along with its modern, two-tier design, a karaoke stage and a full bar, has made it enormously popular with groups of young Chinese-Americans, who take over the restaurant's lower level every weekend night. Unlike many of the city's Sichuan restaurants, where the characteristic combination of hot chile and Sichuan peppercorns (ma-la, or hot and numbing) appears on every last plate, at Legend the flavors range much more widely. Chengdu braised duck ($19.95) tasted of duck meat and lightly cooked ginger; succulent and chewy cold beef ($8.95) of warm spices and sesame; huge, shell-on prawns ($19.95), of the ocean, chile powder and the slight bitterness of celery leaves.

Chef Wang was raised in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, but has lived here long enough to develop a devoted following. Often, the tables are occupied by tourists from China, where the restaurant has been on various "Best of New York" lists. There is a poster of him in the entrance, and many customers do not order off the menu but put their choices in his scarred hands.

Virtually every table has a vat of Chengdu fish with pickled vegetables ($19.95): a mild but bright braise of perfectly cooked white fish and cabbage, simmered with ginger and roasted chiles. Chef Wang's spin on Chongqing chicken, nuggets of meat buried in a mountain of whole dried chiles, is called "Dry spicy tasty diced chicken with ginger and peanut," ($14.95) and has slivers of sweet young ginger and halved peanuts added to the wok; it has become Legend's most popular dish. Scallion oil is one of the standards of a Sichuan kitchen: Legend's is green and cooling, especially when combined with cold tofu and a thick blanket of chopped scallion greens ($5.65). The dan dan noodles ($5.50) are expertly made but, as might be expected of a street-food dish made in a restaurant, not particularly special, and the noodles are sometimes overcooked.

It is easy to get carried away on a tide of heat, but don't ignore lightly seasoned (but beautifully cooked) dishes like homemade bacon sautéed with green leeks ($13.95) or chicken with kai-lan, or Chinese broccoli ($11.95). Sometimes, the ma po tofu ($10.95) is insanely hot; on other occasions, perfectly balanced. The chef's version with fish is worth trying for its eye-opening take on the classic. Some dishes are nearly inedible for the untrained, like the Tears in Eyes ($6.95), a cold dish of slippery, thick noodles topped with pure chile oil. But the staff is careful about menu planning and won't let you order an unbalanced meal unless you are quite determined to. Most of them speak English well and are knowledgeable about the dishes, a huge help when the written menu mostly consists of iterations of "spicy".

"Chinese food is harder to make than French or Japanese food, because it is not sauce based," said Mr. Wang, the shy but prideful co-owner (he is not related to the chef). "Each time the chef makes a dish, the sauce is made from scratch in the wok."

Legend Bar and Restaurant

88 Seventh Avenue (15th Street), Chelsea; (212) 929-1778;

RECOMMENDED DISHES Shrimp wonton in red sesame oil; Sichuan cold noodle; sliced beef with cilantro; bean curd with chopped green onion; Chengdu fish with pickled vegetable; braised fish with napa cabbage and roasted chile; Chengdu braised duck; hot and spicy crispy prawns; dry spicy tasty diced chicken; bacon with green leeks; chicken with Chinese broccoli.

PRICES Appetizers and soups, $4.95 to $13.95; entrees, $10.95 to $26.95; desserts, $4.95 to $6.95.

CREDIT CARDS All major cards.

HOURS Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 11:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 11 p.m.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS Dining room is accessible; restrooms are downstairs.

RESERVATIONS Recommended on weekend nights.

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