The conquest of the city by Sichuan restaurants is nearly complete. When the earliest eateries from that remote region of China first appeared on the Upper West Side in the ’70s, they were palaces of the pallid, with a sticky-sweet stir-fry of baby shrimp in a barely spicy red sauce as their marquee dish. Later, as actual Sichuan immigrants trickled into the city, and the chains Wu Liang Ye and Grand Sichuan arose to spread the gospel, we’ve had real—and really hot—Sichuan food in many Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens neighborhoods, “mah-lah” (numbing-spicy) peppercorns and all. Our portfolio was completed by the appearance of stalls at places like Flushing’s Golden Mall, where the offal-intensive cuisine was showcased at its working-class level.
Not long ago, an upscale Sichuan restaurant materialized in Yorkville. Five years ago, when good Sichuan in that neighborhood was unthinkable, my knee-jerk reaction would have been that the place was probably awful, but now I’m eating my toupee. Despite the comical name—suggesting a Sino-Swiss ski lodge—the food at Szechuan Chalet is exemplary. (Don’t let the spelling of “Sichuan” bother you, either—it’s an Upper East Side dialectical affectation.) The place has the usual uptown Chinese restaurant vibe—a certain cheesy elegance that includes white napery, modern art, and waiters in waistcoats who coddle their customers but are prone to crazy malapropisms.
On our first visit, my crew included New Orleans rock legend Mac Rebennack (a/k/a Dr. John), a notorious trencherman and spicy food appreciator. The appetizers looked promising, though the effete names sounded like a French chef must be prancing around in the kitchen. “Sichuan pork dumplings with roasted red oil” ($4) were as delicate as could be, the meat filling paradoxically rich and light. As single dumplings were ceremoniously deposited on each plate by the waiter, bright red oil and brown chile gravy fanned out, presenting contrasting types of heat and a slight sweetness.
As with the dumplings, the plate of ox tongue and tripe ($6.95) were also like something you’d get at a stall in Flushing, only slightly more refined. As a bonus, chewy beef tendon had been thrown into the mix. “Salty vegetable in spicy Sichuan sauce” turned out to be tiny cubed carrots, Napa cabbage, and Chinese celery, briny from pickling, dabbed with the same spicy red oil and dotted with sesame seeds. We soon realized, though, that Upper East Side Sichuan was going to be less peppercorn-intensive than downtown examples, and sorely missed the mouth-numbing sensation the spice provides.
On that and on further occasions, we ordered broadly from a menu that included Cantonese cuisine in the sections designated by main ingredient (Lobster, Vegetables, Beef & Pork, etc.), forcing us to select dishes carefully for maximum burn. From “Poultry” came the superb “diced chicken sautéed w/ three types of pepper” ($12.95). Included were dried red, fresh green, and pickled green chilies. The incendiary jolt of the recipe was profound, leading us to gulp tea between bites. (Counterintuitively, a warm beverage soothes a burning mouth better than beer—though beer helps you ignore the heat.) From “Tofu” came a creamy version of Ma Po (“pockmarked grandmother”) bean curd that replaced the usual ground pork with beef.
While many Sichuan standards are found in the regular sections of the menu, the dishes the chef is proudest of are located in a two-page section near the end of the glossy, plastic-coated menu. A tilapia ($19.92), fried head and all, comes bathed in a wonderful sticky gravy dotted with enough peppers and chopped garlic to sink the Good Ship Bland. Sichuan Lamb ($16.95), while generously proportioned, lacked the nuanced flavor of Asian cumin, but was good anyway, while san bei chicken turned out to be the Taiwanese signature sometimes called “three-cup chicken,” here rendered with sufficient verve—drowning in sesame oil and thick soy sauce—to convince us there must be a cook from Taipei in the kitchen.
Throughout the meal, Dr. John regaled us with stories about Jerry Garcia (with whom he’d had a falling out over drugs after a gig they did together at the old Academy of Music on 14th Street) and Keith Moon (who jumped out of a window and ran down the street naked after friends tried to stage an intervention focused on his heroin use). In between stories, he mightily enjoyed a plate of shredded jellyfish in what the menu was pleased to call a sesame vinaigrette. As the keyboard virtuoso observed between bites, looking out from under the brim of his black slouch hat and clutching his gris-gris covered cane, “This dish is bangin’.”