Sichuan has taken the city by storm, or maybe I mean by hot peppercorn. While Manhattan is generally deficient in the regional cooking of China, it has long enjoyed a pair of excellent chains that purvey Sichuan on the self-important island, including Grand Sichuan and Wu Liang Ye, both with multiple locations.
The flagship of the Wu Liang Ye chain has been located near Times Square for nearly a decade, occupying the parlor floor of a real townhouse, chandeliers intact, which means you can enjoy your Sichuan food in a setting far more elegant than most Chinese restaurants. Fork in the Road went for a revisit to see if the food was still up to snuff, but Sarah DiGregorio and I also had an ulterior motive: a summit meeting, like two mafia families, with the staff of the blog Midtown Lunch. That staff was represented by its founder, Zach Brooks, and the newest member, his son Harry.
Wu Liang Ye’s dan dan noodles are still a perfect starter to a Sichuan meal
To appraise the restaurant, we went for the standard Sichuan dishes, starting with dan-dan noodles–the quintessential street food of the province–and wontons in hot oil. Of course, the noodles had to be mixed vigorously before eating, but were extremely tasty. The heat came more from the chile oil and crushed chiles than from Sichuan peppercorns, which established a pattern repeated throughout the meal. The reason, perhaps, is the location of the restaurant in a tourist zone. Maybe many customers arrive expecting to be served a spicy meal, but unfamiliar with the peculiar neuro-culinary effects of the peppercorns, which might scare the fuck out them. These effects, of course, include numb lips and tingling tongue, like the aftermath of a visit to the dentist..
Looking like plump insect larvae, the Sichuan dumplings make another excellent app, with the mellow flavor of bean paste underlying the burn of chile oil.
The pattern continued with the excellent braised beef with napa cabbage, which came decorated with lots of crushed red peppercorns and scarlet chile oil. Indeed the ubiquity of chile oil in the recipes is one of the most authentic aspects of the Sichuan food at Wu Liang Ye. The food swims in it. “How do they get all this laundry clean?” Zach queried, nodding at the red puddles that were already beginning to accumulate on the white napery.
Baby Harry had fallen aspleep by the time the spicy braised beef arrived to enflame our taste buds.
By the time Harry woke up–in good spirits, as is his habit–we’d elected him to the Board of Directors of both Fork in the Road and Midtown Lunch. He seemed happy to accept the role. The meal finished with a lovely camphor tea smoked duck, which tastes like Texas barbecue, only smokier.
Aside from a dearth of actual Sichuan peppercorns, the meal had been as spicy as we wanted it to be. Except the ma po bean curd, which was hyper-beany and bland.
The tea-smoked duck is stupendous–an oasis of mellow smokiness, surrounded by a barbershop quartet of dainty bao.
Sarah and I bid farewell to Harry and Zach, vowing to hang again soon. Harry chewed on a small piece of duck, as he and his dad disappeared into the midtown lunchtime throngs outside the restaurant.
Wu Liang Ye
36 West 48th Street