At the end of the last century, who could have predicted Manhattan would someday be speckled with Sichuan restaurants? Cantonese carryouts were installed in every neighborhood back then, patronized by customers long accustomed to their wonderfully bland, greasy output and as addicted to egg rolls and stir-fries as to cheap prices and speedy delivery. But as old-school takeaways vanished, pricier Sichuan places appeared in Chelsea and Midtown, where the core menu was not only unfamiliar to most diners, but also hot as hell.
Take Land of Plenty. It’s one of four Sichuans I’ve visited on the Upper East Side and its outskirts, once a Cantonese stronghold. The establishment is situated east of Bloomingdale’s in the Mia Dona space—where proprietress Donatella Arpaia sold meatballs from a pink pushcart on the front patio. Little has changed, decor-wise. Antique farm implements still splay on rough off-white walls. Swathed in fabrics, the interior is sumptuous in a starchy, Old Money sort of way. The staff speaks excellent English, and the dining rooms are quiet enough for a whispered conversation.
Yet there’s nothing tepid or restrained about the seasoning. Consider the rather verbose “braised whole fish filet with soy bean sprouts in roasted chili spiced broth” ($24). It sloshes in a bone-white tureen, a sea of red oil in which dozens upon dozens of flame-blackened cayenne peppers bob. Like the progeny of Moby-Dick, white splotches of fish waiting to be harpooned break the surface. What you might not notice till it’s too late are the teeming masses of Sichuan peppercorns just below the surface. They’ll turn your tongue into a numb, tingling lump of flesh as surely as a dentist’s shot of novocaine and make a sip of water taste like metal.
While the working-class Sichuan stall in the basement of Flushing’s Golden Mall concentrates on warm noodles and cold tripe, tendon, and tongue, Land of Plenty, as befits its locale, takes a more upscale approach, furnishing lamb fillet, giant prawns, duck, and whole roasted fish. Maybe they have restaurants like this in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. At Land of Plenty, even street standards such as ma po tofu ($11)—named for a smallpox-scarred café owner who lived on the fringes of Chengdu in the early 20th century—are here interpreted in a refined, drawing-room manner. On the Upper East, this grande dame of a dish displays a modern sexual ambiguity, referred to on the menu as “Ma Paul tofu.”
You can have your lamb wet, or you can have it dry. “Braised lamb filets with napa cabbage and roasted chili” ($19) comes in a dark swirl of savory gravy and chili oil, with enough liquid to moisten five pounds of white rice. Yes, it’s infernally hot, as indicated by the “three chilies” designation in the menu’s margins. (This amazingly accurate system features zero through four chilies, the last reserved solely for a dish that’s nothing but sautéed green hot peppers.) By contrast, “crispy lamb filets with roasted chili-cumin” features tender swatches coated with spices and no sauce at all, tasting like the meat was carried on camelback along the Silk Road from distant Uzbekistan. Differentiating it from something similar in Flushing’s northern Chinese restaurants, the recipe also boasts lightly sautéed onions, adding sweetness.
The whole fish are spectacular, too, including one whose name sounds like a bubblegum rock refrain: “braised whole fish with mashed chili, chili, chili” ($24). And don’t miss the tea-smoked duck, which could make a convincing substitute for Texas barbecue. Lacking any chilies at all, the flesh provides a Band-Aid for your throbbing tongue. Other mild selections include pea shoots cooked with whole garlic cloves and West Lake beef soup—ground meat with egg drops in a sparkling cilantro-laced broth. The menu doesn’t pull its punches in the variety meats department, either. What stereotypical Upper East Sider, you wonder, could endure dozens of rubbery fish stomachs in “fish maw with pickled chili” ($19)?
So why are these Sichuan restaurants popping up? Real estate pressures have likely strangled many cheap Cantonese spots—but not the desire of the general public to eat Chinese food. Note that the new Sichuans also offer equally long Cantonese menus, similar to the old places but at elevated prices. Yes, you can still get chicken with broccoli at Land of Plenty, but at about twice the former price. Beyond that, a more sophisticated dining public sallies out nightly in search of challenging experiences—including mouth-searing levels of spice. Cantonese carryout just doesn’t do it for them anymore. Could fish tummies be the new egg foo yong?
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.