La Vie en Szechuan’s exemplary ma po tofu
Midtown now boasts the city’s largest concentrations of Sichuan restaurants. Most of these are timid compared to the ones in Flushing, offering little in the way of Sichuan peppercorns or offal, but an agreeable – and often spicy – experience nonetheless. Not so La Vie en Szechuan, a goofy name for a very serious place a stone’s throw from the Empire State Building, recently extolled by Ligaya Mishan in the New York Times.
Not hot, but still tasty, La Vie’s beef with green beans
Indeed, the menu reads like a barnyard anatomy lesson, from pig ears all the way to chicken hearts, duck tongues, beef tendon, and pig blood – the latter offered in wobbly cakes. But maybe you want to stick to the less-organ-intensive dishes, especially for an office lunch hour, and La Vie is more than willing to accommodate you with a $7.95 lunch special large enough that it’s almost sufficient for two.
A friend and I had been advised that the noon hour was a better time to arrive than 1 p.m., when a tidal wave of diners – most of them Chinese – arrive to begin lengthy meals. Precisely at noon, the place is more than half empty and the food arrives with alacrity. Confining ourselves to the special lunch menu, a friend and I went for ma po tofu, which is a dish so familiar in the city at this point, we could easily compare it with perhaps two dozen other versions eaten in the last year or so.
I should first mention that the meal is preceded by a soup course, offering a small bowl of egg drop, hot-and-sour, or wonton soup. While the wonton soup doesn’t suck, the hot-and-sour (a soup that originated in Northern China) makes a better prelude to the Sichuan fare.
The pleasant dining room
The size of the bowl of ma po was voluminous, and nicely studded with ground pork. There was plenty of chile oil in the mix, but you could also see little hillocks of ground Sichuan peppercorns here and there, melting into the thick oily gravy. The curd was the usual curd, soft and yielding. I prefer crushed peppercorns, but ground will do in a pinch, and since the cooking of this chef is of surpassing subtlety, maybe ground functions better in that context.
We went bland for the other entrée – beef with green beans. Once again, it was abundant and delectable, nicely flavored with soy sauce and ginger. Both entrees came with mounded bowls of white rice. And, flying in the face of many serious Chinese restaurants today, fortune cookies are parsed out at the end. Mine said, “You are not illiterate.”
Served from 11 a.m. till 3:30 p.m., the lunch special includes a choice of 38 dishes. Others that looked particularly interesting were Chengdu style chicken, sliced chicken with pickled red pepper, minced pork with pickled long beans, and home style shredded pork.
La Vie en Szechuan
144 East 33rd Street
The temporary nature of the signage suggests the restaurant’s tenure in the space is not a foregone conclusion — so get over there!
Read the Story Behind Ma Po Tofu