Saturday, November 19, 2011

Hot, hot, hot! - Cuisine Szechuan

Heeelloooo chili-heads. Look at those peppers. Now back to me. Now back at those peppers. Now back to me. Sadly, they aren't sweet. But if you stopped eating Americanized Chinese food and switched to authentic Sichuan food, you could eat spicy foods just like me. Look down, back up, where are you? You're at Cuisine Szechuan with the Chinese food your food could taste like. What's in your hand, back at me. I have it; it's a napkin with two chopsticks to that thing you love. Look again; the chopsticks are now hot peppers. Anything is possible when you eat authentic Sichuan food.

Now that I've filled my quota of incomprehensible humour, allow me to introduce Cuisine Szechuan to you! Situated conveniently downtown on Guy, Cuisine Szechuan specializes in Chinese cuisine from the province of Sichuan, which is known for their spicy and flavourful foods. What makes Cuisine Szechuan stand out is that, unlike most Chinese restaurants here, they aren't afraid to bring on the heat!

If any of you have been following me, then you'll know that I'm pretty picky about my Chinese food, especially when it comes to Sichuan (or Szechuan) Cuisine. It's unfortunate that we don't have many authentic Sichuan restaurants in Montreal, so when my friend told me about a Chinese restaurant with a chef from Sichuan, I was ecstatic. And very, very curious.

Accessibility - Grade: A
Five minute walk from Guy-Concordia metro, Guy exit. Just keep walking up Guy until right before you hit Sherbrooke. It will be on the left-hand side of the street.

Service - Grade: B-
There are a couple of ways to know whether or not you're in an authentic mainland Chinese restaurant. Here's a basic checklist:
- Dingy, dirty, unimpressive-looking restaurant and decor? Check.
- Brisk, impersonal service yet oddly efficient service? Check. (If there aren't many people, though, service here tends to be decent).
- They're cash only? Check.
- Waiter/waitress speaks Mandarin? Check.
- Surrounded by Mandarin-speaking Mainland-Chinese university students? Check.
It's a general rule when it comes to Chinese restaurants, be it here in North America or in China, that if the ambiance is amazing and the service impeccable, then the food is going to be crap. I think that was supposed to be a secret, so shhhhh. But yeah. Now you know.

Food - Grade: B-

For me, this place is a hit-or-miss, depending on the dish. The misses tend to be really big misses, but in retrospect, the hits are what make the restaurant so noteworthy.
Fu Qi Fei Pian (夫妻肺片)
 Uncommon foreign food alert, I guess? This dish has a funny name, as many Sichuan dishes do, and I suppose there's some kind of story behind it. Anywho, the name of the dish literally translates to 'sliced lungs by married couple', but it doesn't necessarily contain lung. It's a cold appetizer comprising of cooked sliced beef, sliced beef organs and beef tripe, all tossed in a marinate of chili oil, spices and topped with crushed peanuts.

Fu Qi Fei Pian (夫妻肺片)
 Ever since I tried this dish at a Sichuan restaurant in Toronto, it had become one of my favourite appetizer dishes. The one in Toronto was really well made, with the beef sliced so impossibly thin that it curled up. This particular version of the dish, however, was less than impressive. I know it's funny to say this about a restaurant whose chef is Sichuanese, but the dish wasn't authentic. First of all, the dish only contained sliced organs, with no beef or tripe. Second, the slices were far too thick, which brings about number three; the game-y taste of the organs was too strong. The seasoning and spice level of the dish was great; it even left your mouth tingly and numb from the Sichuan peppercorn. It's just unfortunate that they completely missed the mark with everything else.

Cucumber 'Liang fen' (黄瓜凉粉)
 Liang fen is a type of crystal noodle, in this case made out of water chestnuts. This is another favourite appetizer of mine, which I just found passable at Szechuan. Traditionally, the noodles are sliced into long and thin strips, like actual noodles, and are tossed with julienned cucumbers, chilli oil and spices. The entire dish is served chilled. At Szechuan, the noodles are cut into broad, rectangular slices and the cucumbers are sliced instead of juilienned. This would have been okay, but the deal-breaker was the fact that the noodles weren't fresh. Fresh crystal noodles are bouncy and elastic, and each bite should have that feeling of breaking the surface of an untouched jello. In this case, the noodles broke apart easily and became mushy in your mouth, which is a sign that it had been refrigerated again after being made. The dish also came out at room temperature.

So those were the misses. Other misses I've experienced at Cuisine Szechuan are: the dan dan noodles (using the wrong type of noodles entirely and putting way to much chilli oil) and lunch in general (too Westernized). Also, if you're ordering General Tao chicken in this restaurant, then I think your priorities might be in the wrong place. Now for the good stuff!

Lamb hot pot
 The hot pots! Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan, is pretty famous for their hot, hot, hot pots! Although probably not nearly as spicy as the ones you get in Sichuan, and while you don't get to choose what to put in it (since everything is stuffed in the pot before they serve it to you), it's still deeply satsifying, especially on a cold November's night.

Lamb hot pot
 The pot contains cooked pieces of lamb ribs, slices of potato, wood ear, bok choy, tofu, seaweed and a bed of bean sprouts, all drowning under a thick layer of chilli oil. There isn't much to describe in terms of flavour, since it's hot pot and all the flavours tend to mix together, but I can promise you that blandness is not something you'll have to worry about. After simmering in the pot for ten minutes, even boring old bean sprouts become infused with flavour. As for the lamb, the meat was tender and fatty, and they fell of the bone really easily. Also, make sure to order and eat rice with this pot, or you might end up with an ulcer. Or something.

I think I should add some warnings. I consider myself average in the Chinese population when it comes to eating spicy foods. While I was still able to enjoy this pot, I also drank a tonne of water and my nose ran like a leaky faucet. My stomach burned a bit during the night and even during the next morning, but I didn't have any serious discomforts. And, of course, the thing that usually happens after eating excessive amounts of spicy foods happened the next day. All this is to say that you should only eat up to the spiciness level that you're comfortable with, or things might not go so well after.

Other dishes worth checking out are the spicy stewed fish dish (Shui Zhu Yu 水煮鱼) and the cumin lamb or beef dish.

Price - $-$$
This place really isn't that expensive. The lamb hot pot, which can easily feed four, costs only $19.99. Individual dishes are around $10 each, depending on what you order. We were four people, and for the above three dishes plus a medium rice, it came up to around $55 in total, including tax and tip. Pretty good, no? Do note that they only take cash, though.

Final Grade: B-
Final verdict: there are quite a few dishes on their menu that I don't like, but I think that Cuisine Szechuan is worth revisiting for the few that I really do enjoy. Plus, I'd take Cuisine Szechuan over Americanized-Chinese or Pseudo-Szechuan any day. ;)

... I'm on a horse.

Cuisine Szechuan
2350 rue Guy, Montreal
(514) 933-5041
Cuisine Szechuan on Urbanspoon


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