Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Grand Sichuan Hits the West Village (And Steals My Heart)

After a great day at the Jersey Shore this past Saturday, I had a sudden yen for some Chinese. There's something about being in the sun all day that makes me crave the salty, spicy, sweet goodness of quality Chinese food.

Certainly in no mood to navigate the cacophonous, claustrophobic orgy of humanity that is Chinatown, this was the perfect opportunity to check out The Grand Sichuan on 7th avenue south just north of Carmine Street.

As the latest installment in a string of restaurants that first began 10 years ago in Chinatown, today The Grand Sichuan has infiltrated most of metro-Manhattan, from Midtown East, to across the river in Jersey City. This popular spot for affordable, simple Chinese fare has finally made its way to the West Village. Thank the lord. Thank Buddha. Thank Somebody!

My ebullience for these eastern edibles is well justified.

Aside from Suzie's on Bleecker Street, which has (justifiably) enjoyed a decades-long monopoly on the neighborhood Chinese food scene (take-out and eat-in), the West Village is severely lacking in the sit-down Chinese food department. Furthermore, I can't help but feel as though, over the years, the elegance and antiquity that I so strongly associate with the Chinese food experience, have all but disappeared in the name of convenience, and all out lazyness. Where have all the Pu Pu platters gone? Why have we so quickly dismissed, the once novel, and still quite tasty concept of fried ice cream? And what does a guy have to do to get a warm towel these days?

There is no doubt my relationship with Chinese food has been on the rocks in recent years. Save for the occasional pointed meal in Chinatown, or a wallet-friendly sitting at Suzie's, it has been quite a while since I 've championed Chinese food.

And then came The Grand Sichuan.

Behind a plane black awning that bears its name, the triangular dining room is excitingly sleek. Here, they 've traded kitsch for class, choosing slate-tiling, a brick accent wall, and three pieces of modern art, instead of Golden Dragon Heads, Gongs, haphazardly situated tapestries, and cliche background music. One of my favorite aspects of TGS is that it doesn't feel like a Chinese restaurant at all, but a gathering place for those in search of great meal. Well look no further.

Firstly, I was immediately blown away by the prices on the menu. $1.95 for a small soup, $5.95 for a small entree? $9.95 for some of the large entress? Was this right? Looking to get a feel for what I was getting into, I right away opted for the Hot and Sour Soup (for $1.95!) Dark, rich, and heavy on the pepper, this classic starter was as good a version as any. I've been known to doctor up a wounded Hot and Sour with buckets of hot mustard, and most of the time I do, but this time, I had no need for it.

Another rather endearing attribute to this charming spot is its distinction on the menu between "American Chinese" and "Classic Sichuan" dishes. The former lists such tried and true favorites as Sesame Chicken, Orange Beef, and Chicken with Broccoli, while the latter group consists of more intriguing, more honest selections such as the Braised Beef in Chili Sauce and Shredded Pork in Garlic Sauce.

To mix things up we ordered from both lists, starting with th the Chicken with Cashew (below), which cominbed plump juicy morsels of lightly battered chicken with diced carrots, crispy water chestnuts, and of course bulbous cashew halves.

As another homage to classic "American Chinese", the Chicken with Garlic Sauce (below) was incredible. The TGS version is light and poignant in terms of zest and flavor, offering a perfect balance of thinly shredded peppers and onions and succulent chards of melt-in-your-mouth chicken, tossed in a thin and zingy brown garlic sauce that was just right. This was the best Chicken and Garlic I've ever had.

The star of the evening, however, was the Double Cooked Pork (below) which I ordered extra spicy (the menu offers "non spicy" as well). This is absolutely delightful concoction of buttery bacon-like slices of fat-marbled pork, seasoned liberally and tossed with a little bit of green onion, garlic, and crunchy, al dente pea shoots. Though I don't know exactly what "twice cooked" entails, the explosive flavor and remarkable tenderness of the pork makes me only wonder how good it would be like if they cooked it again.

Equally as impeccable as the food, was the service, which was attentive, unusually swift, and at times charmingly frenetic. Our busser’s unnecessary, endearingly effusive apology for not filling up our water more quickly couldn’t have been a more genuine demonstration of Sichuan’s unwavering desire to please. And in today’s often insolent, “we’re doing you a favor by serving you” restaurant scene, it’s nice to actually be fawned over for once. There is pride in what they do here, and you can taste it.

Thanks to The Grand Sichuan, I am no longer estranged from my life-long companion known as Chinese food. After years of distance, I’ve come to realize that perhaps I was being too hard on her. Maybe I was unfairly and selfishly mistaken in allowing vibrant images of orange-brown goop-filled rectangular tin-foil containers, pollute my previously pristine perception of the priceless antiquity of the Chinese kitchen. How can love be so fleeting?

Yet, as in all matters of the heart, the anguish of a broken relationship will forever succumb to the euphoria of a new one, and thanks to ‘Sichuan, I can now love again.

Ain’t that Grand?

The Grand Sichuan (map it)

Food: A
Ambiance: A
Service: A
Price: A (Astoundingly affordable)
Thought: Perhaps the best Chinese I've ever had.


Joe K said...

Oh man. Now you're talking. I am quite the veteran of Grand Sichuan. Here are the best dishes in my humble opinion...

1) Guizhou Chicken (ask for fresh killed chicken)
2) Dan Dan Noodles
3) Ya did good with the double cooked pork...also a favorite of mine
4) Kung Pao Chicken or Shrimp (again, fresh killed is the way to go)
5) Sauteed Pea Shoot ($$$...but so good)

Never order the American inspired stuff. It typically sucks. I dare you to try the general's chicken if you want a good cry. BEST Chinese in the city.

BTW, I've been really busy...and also out of town. I'll be back in September. I'd like to grab a beer if our schedules work out!

Anonymous said...

Oh you missed out - the Aui Zhou (sic) chicken is their specialty. Sounds like you'll be ordering again thought, check it out. Very spicy.