At first look, Grand Sichuan would seem to be another one of those small joints serving the Chinese food that has come to be a part of the daily life of busy Gothamites, with enough of a sprinkling of Chinese patrons to offer some claim to quality. Head inside and look closer—the Asian diners were brought by a United Nations tour guide and seem to be truly savoring their fare. The jig is up when the waitress arrives bringing not only the multipaged menu with its listing of seasonal specialties and other delights, but also a 26-page explanation of the menu’s offerings and treatise on Chinese food—this is not your average corner Chinese. The learned narrative on the food of the Sichuan region and a discussion of the differences between authentic Chinese food and its American derivative is a delightful and informative rant. On my first visit, I was so riveted that I almost forgot to order, much to the dismay of my friends.
The appetizer selection, though, returned me to the issue at hand: taste. The Sichuan wonton with red oil ($3.50) was slippery with fiery oil and yet tenderly chewy and light, a fitting setup for the meal to follow. And the roast pork bun ($1) was quite simply the best I’ve ever had, a plump pillow of toothsome dough overstuffed with shards of meat and flavored with a hint of five-spice powder; I had another on my second visit just to confirm that the miracle was no accident. At that time, I also sampled the fried dumplings filled with a flavorful mince of pork and onion and shreds of cabbage, which proved moist and filling—perfect pot stickers ($3.95). The chive-flecked dumplings with shrimp ($3.95) kept up the score.
Mains were as astonishing, demonstrating what the menu means when it boasts that Sichuan cooking has 22 different types of tastes. The crispy quail ($10.95) were tender, crisp quarters of minifowl offering a nugget or two of meat flavored with a deft combination of seasonings, among which I could recognize only a hint of star anise. The sautéed and dry string beans ($7.25) were stir-fried to a dense, silky texture with a hint of char on the edges. Satisfyingly flavored with a mince of pork and the pungency of garlic, they were what the Barbadians call more-ish. The delicacy of the chef’s special braised whole fish with scallion ($14.95) seemed lost under its brown sauce, but perhaps it was simply too complex for our American taste buds. Even so, it was intriguing.
In a menu that listed over 200 items, there was a separate page offering eight dishes inspired by a long-running and popular Chinese television series, The Prodigal Princess of the Chinese Emperor. Each dish is named for a line from a famous ancient Chinese poem. “We would be two love-birds flying wing to wing on high” proved a hot and delicious mix of lightly sautéed tender chicken pieces scented with slices of ginger and served with sneaky halves of jalapeño chiles that are—watch out—easily confused with the green scallions that round out the dish.
Desserts are ordinary, and the spot’s popularity prevents lingering. But as we crunched our fortune cookies, we could have gladly rewritten them to read: “You have found a special place. You will return often.”