Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sliced Fish with Spicy Sauce Soup at Old Sichuan

"Sliced Fish with Spicy Sauce Soup" at Old Sichuan on Bayard Street is one of the most intimidating dishes I've ever had placed in front of me. The large bowl is practically overflowing with vibrant red broth and the whole thing is topped with two—perhaps three dozen hot red chilies. Sliced white fish timidly pokes out from somewhere underneath. It's not immediately clear how it is to be eaten, and even if that could be determined whether eating it would be a good idea.

Dan Dan Noodles
It turns out eating it is a great idea. Indeed, sliced fish with spicy sauce soup is one of the best Chinese dishes I've had in New York.

The broth is milder on the heat scale than the mound of chilies would suggest and more complex and flavorful, featuring the floral tingling flavor of Sichuan pepper. The fish is unbelievably tender and buttery, and further underneath are large chunks of tofu that have soaked up the sauce. After devouring the dish perhaps a dozen times, I am still not sure whether it is sauce or soup, or both, but in any case my strategy is to ladle it into a smaller bowl and eat the fish with chopsticks.

Once I've polished off all the fish in there, I follow the staff's suggestion and take home the leftover soup/sauce to be cooked with more fish the next day.

Ma Po Tofu (sans pork)
Old Sichuan is a great spot for authentic Sichuan food, featuring the powerful flavors of garlic, ginger and chilies. When the menu arrives, skip the pages dedicated to Americanized Chinese dishes, which are there to please tourists (there's always one table nearby ordering chicken with broccoli and lo mein). Instead, head for the pages called "Authentic Sichuan Food," "Authentic Vegetable," and "Chef's Specialties." That's where you'll find the good stuff.

Lamb with Green Chilies
Better yet, just ask the friendly staff for recommendations. Whereas at many establishments nearby they throw the food at you (including at Ping's, one of my favorites), the folks at Old Sichuan are happy to see you and genuinely want you to enjoy the food. After two visits I was a regular.

On one visit, I witnessed the lady who I assume to be the owner carrying a giant bowl of sliced fish with spicy sauce soup out of the restaurant and down the street, making sure not to burn herself or tip any of the fiery liquid or chilies onto the ground. Someone at her other restaurant had asked for it, she explained. It's something Grandma would do.

Show them you're serious and you shall be rewarded. Like with dan dan noodles, nice and springy and tossed with an intensely fragrant sauce made with Sichuan pepper, perhaps one of the most exciting and exotic tastes for the American palate. Or ma po tofu, the Sichuan staple, which arrives glowing red and slippery and satisfying (try our recipe). In deference to my wife I order both without pork, which works out wonderfully.

Wontons in Hot Oil
To calm the palate—you'll need it—go for the addictive corn egg drop soup, which is nice and soothing, with some sweetness from the corn. Or ask for a steamer basket full of terrific soup dumplings, an unexpected addition to the menu that perhaps comes from their Shanghaiese sister restaurant down the block.

Then fire it up again with sliced lamb with green chilies. I like it better than the cumin lamb, which I find a little dry and prefer to order at a good Hunan restaurant.

I can't tell you that Old Sichuan is the best Sichuan place in the city, or the oldest, or that it is as good as some of the places in Flushing or Lao Sze Chuan in Chicago. Some think the ma po tofu lacks some depth, and I don't totally disagree. But the food is fantastic when you're in the mood for something spicy, and it boasts one truly knockout dish. With the friendly casual atmosphere, Old Sichuan has become my go-to spot for tongue-tingling Sichuan fare in Manhattan.

Old Sichuan
65 Bayard St (between Mott & Elizabeth St)
(212) 227-9888
http://www.oldsichuan.com/

Recommended dishes: sliced fish with spicy sauce soup ($18.95); dan dan noodles ($3.95); ma po tofu ($10.95); lamb with green pepper ($14.95); corn egg drop soup ($3.95); soup dumplings ($6.50).


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