Home / Lifestyle / Food

Szechuan Chalet

The New York Times | Updated: 2012-04-06 14:21

Szechuan Chalet

Razor clams with scallion pesto at Szechuan Chalet.[Photo/The New York Times]

IF the corner slice joint had brought in a pizzaiolo and brick oven from Naples, it wouldn't have been as surprising as hearing that the Sichuan place on Second Avenue and 73rd Street was actually good.

Over the years the name out front had changed, but General Tso had always been the one you could count on inside. So it was a shock to find out that when the Szechuan Chalet sign went up in September the fare was no longer more of the same. A successor to the late Wu Liang Ye on East 86th Street, with authentic Sichuan cooking, may have entered the building.

Szechuan Chalet doesn't bring the fire of New York's best Sichuan restaurants. Its menu doesn't have their breadth. Not every dish is memorable. But with a friendly waiter's guidance to offerings on the menu and off it, there are pleasures to be had.

Sichuan pork dumplings with roasted red oil ($4) were al dente, not the usual mush. The stuffing was fresh, the sauce rich and mouth-filling, not just oily and hot. Sichuan peppercorns made the ma po tofu ($10.95) tingle, but fermented black beans (and maybe bean paste) gave it a real depth of flavor.

Braised flounder fillets were perfectly cooked with Napa cabbage in chili oil sauce ($17.95), the spices vibrant but not overpowering. (It says tilapia on the menu, but they've switched to the much tastier fish.)

The best dishes at Szechuan Chalet didn't need a blast of heat to stand out.

Razor clams with scallion pesto ($15.95) had their own attention-getting device. The dish was arranged in the shape of a peacock, the bird carved from daikon and its comb made from a carrot. The clams fanned out behind it, enrobed in a sauce of scallions, chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. Disneyesque but delicious.

A request for more ma la - the numbing titillation you get from Sichuan peppercorns and chilies - brought dishes with both power and finesse.

Salted vegetables (broccoli stems, carrots, cabbage) with spicy Sichuan sauce ($5.95) were as perfect a companion for the meal as kosher dills with a Katz's pastrami sandwich.

Shavings of ox tongue and tripe, with roasted chili and peanut vinaigrette ($6.95), were tender and bracing, offal as a high-class bar snack.

Strips of pork belly with green chilies and scallions ($14.95) seemed almost delicate. That seasonal, off-the-menu item was a waiter's suggestion, part of the restaurant's thoughtful service.

An ice bucket for the pinot gris we brought was offered without our asking. Fresh plates arrived unbidden as the meal went on.

And when have you ever seen a guy in cook's whites emerge from a kitchen at a neighborhood Chinese restaurant to survey the dining room? He was checking how we liked the Sichuan steamed pork buns ($4.95), which he seemed to have prepared à la minute.

As he looked around, our waiter stepped over and put his arm around his shoulder. "This is the chef and," he added as they both smiled, "my slave driver".

That's Wei Lu, the chef, and an owner of the restaurant. After cooking in Chengdu, Sichuan, for almost two decades, in 1993 Mr. Lu went to cook at Chengdu 46 in Clifton, N.J., one of the first restaurants in the state to take a stab at Sichuan authenticity. Six years ago he opened China Chalet in Florham Park, N.J.

So there's another surprise: Sichuan food imported from New Jersey.

Szechuan Chalet

1395 Second Avenue (73rd Street), Upper East Side, (212) 737-1838,

BEST DISHES Sichuan pork dumplings with roasted red oil; ox tongue and tripe with roasted chili and peanut vinaigrette; braised flounder fillets with napa cabbage in chili oil sauce; ma po tofu.

PRICE RANGE Appetizers, $3 to $15.95; main dishes, $9.95 to $25.95.

CREDIT CARDS All major cards.

HOURS Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday to 11 p.m.; Saturday noon to 11 p.m., Sunday to 10 p.m.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS Dining room and restroom are accessible.

Copyright 1995 - . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form. Note: Browsers with 1024*768 or higher resolution are suggested for this site.
License for publishing multimedia online 0108263

Registration Number: 130349