Monday, May 31, 2010

You say Szechuan, I say Sichuan House

*This is the first of two installments on Sichuan House.

Let's talk Australia food. Not Australian food (I'll get to the meat pies later), but rather, the food we consumed on our trip.

Specifically, I need to talk about Sichuan House. Because I believe I started this blog just so that one day I could write about this place.

Just thinking about Sichuan House makes me weepy -- but that's probably just a physical manifestation of the sweat-inducing spice combinations that will forever be locked away in my nostalgic memory bank.

We were introduced to Sichuan House via Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. We went twice during our trip. And I wept for many reasons during our two lunches there. The aforementioned spice combinations. The perfect levels of heat. The flavors. The leftovers I had to leave behind.

We went a bit sky's-the-limit on our first lunch, spending an extra $13 on an appetizer we ordered simply so we could say we'd done it. I submit to you Exhibit A: chilled, sliced pork ears with chili oil.

These were probably exactly what you're imagining. Hard, cold, rubbery cartilage. All the chili oil in the world wasn't going to change their texture or flavor. I had two bites -- the first to test it out, the second to see if it was perhaps an acquired taste. It was not. But the picture -- isn't it spectactular? It's worth at least $13.

(Another benefit of this exercise? Now I know what my dog is eating when I give her pig's ears to snack on.)

Our first actual course was one of the daily lunch specials: Kung Pao Prawns. Now, I'm not a Kung Pao fan; it's never been my thing. But I compromised, gladly, because there we were, finally seated at this place we'd been drooling about in our daydreams, and I figured if I'm ever going to become a Kung Pao convert, this will be the place.

And it was.

Forget that the traditional brown sauce was some of the best I've ever had -- lighter, sweeter and tangier than what you find in the States -- or that the prawns were plump and fresh and perfectly cooked.

No. What did it for me? The fried peanuts. They elevated this dish to new heights; American-Chinese chefs should take a page. (And go ahead and work on that brown sauce while they're at it.)

Our second course of the first day was decided by me before we'd even opened the door to Sichuan House.

A sign upon entering was advertising chef's specials and I wanted to dance a jig when I read the words SPICY CUMIN* PORK RIBS. (You know you'd do the same.)

While the pictures are rather wonderful, they don't begin to capture what this tower of meat represents to me, and I'm not a strong enough writer to do these ribs justice.

I want to go back and have them again, and I don't just mean back to Melbourne but back in time. I want to start over and eat less rice and have a smaller breakfast and make more room for these.

Without being melodramatic, I'll simply say this: in my culinary heaven, these ribs are the pearly gates. They beckon, like the white light people talk about. They make me want to be a better person, just so I can get in.

While the pork was tasty -- smallish but meaty pieces coated in layers upon layers of cumin and untold spices and then fried (@#$&!%?!*) -- this dish, for me, represented perfection in heat. The Nobel Heat Prize, the World Cup of Fiery Flavor. The levels (and there were levels) of heat were intense enough to make my stomach hurt for hours later, strong enough in the moment to cause a bit of sweating of the scalp and running of the nose and yet mild enough to be consumed without actual pain.

In a word, heatopia.

I will seek out this kind of heat for the rest of my life in all foods Asian; I will find it perhaps only a few more times. And probably only when I'm back in Melbourne, settling in once again at Sichuan House on an empty stomach with plans to bag the leftovers.

*I don't even like cumin!

1 comment:

  1. I've left out a small detail involving an anise-like seed that I found in both the Kung Pao prawns and another dish from our second lunch, and I'll elaborate in my second post because I plan to do a bit of research first. But in all fairness, the meal(s) weren't perfect; I had the misfortune of biting into this pod thing, and the flavor of licorice and Clorox bleach temporarily flooded my mouth on each occasion. Fortunately, Diet Coke and more food washed it all away ....