My search for a great Midtown meal continued a few weeks ago when Empanada Boy and I were looking for a place to eat before the ballet. Many of the places near Lincoln Center are overpriced or just plain too expensive. But I remembered reading about Szechuan Gourmet in a 2008 two-star review by Frank Bruni in The New York Times. Bruni singled it out as a true example of ultra-spicy, pepper-infused Szechuan cooking outside the expected confines of Chinatown and Flushing. The restaurant has two, Midtown locations, but I wanted to try the original on 39th Street. EB and I met there after work.
Before I get into what we ordered, it’s worth emphasizing that this food is spicy. And when I say spicy, I mean burning your esophagus, numbing your lips, spicy. But the food can also be sweet or distinctively seasoned in a way that lets you taste and enjoy the complexities before the burn begins. The key ingredient in this heat is the Szechuan peppercorn, the outer pod of which is toasted and scattered throughout this restaurant’s menu.
EB and I started with mild, but delicious, appetizer of tender sliced pork belly with a fantastic chili-garlic soy sauce. The succulent flavors of this dish were just layered on: fat, sweetness, saltiness and a bite of scallion here and there.
As is turned out, we were glad we tasted this dish first because the dishes we ordered got progressively dominant in flavor. The next plate our server set down in front of us bore a mound of crispy lamb pieces, coated in a cumin-heavy spice powder. The dusty shell broke away upon biting to reveal tasty morsels of gamy lamb. The heat in this dish came from dried peppers that were scattered throughout. Everything was manageable until I bit into one of those babies. The burn lasted for a while so I didn’t end up eating many of them, and the bold spicing of the meat stood up well to the heat. My one complaint with this dish was that it was very dry. It’s not that the meat was overdone, but rather that there was no sauce or juices to it. I am assuming this is typical of the dish, but I found myself wanting liquids to sop up.
Our final dish was the ma po tofu, which is labeled with four stars (extra spicy) on the menu. Large, ethereally light, cubes of tofu are presented swimming in a pool of fragrant, slightly sweet, sauce. And then it hits you. The heat creeps across your lips and across your tongue, down your throat and into your stomach. The burn is both painful and pleasant. The sweetness of the sauce and the infusion of scallions comes through the heat, creating a symphony of components. We left feeling like we had eaten twice as much as our stomach muscles contracted with the heat of those chilies. Needless to say, it was a battle my stomach would be willing to fight again.
21 W. 39th St.
New York, NY 10018
Szechuan Gourmet 56
242 West 56th Street
New York, NY 10019