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Sichuan or Szechuan: A Pair of Restaurant Reviews
Spring Volume: 1998 Issue: 5(1) page(s): 14
Expensive or inexpensive, uptown or downtown, new or older spellings, These are the choices. There are at least two great Sichuan/Szechuan restaurants in New York. Either restaurant is more authentic than most, both are worth visiting. A party of six evaluated the former, they and three additional diners the latter. Everyone agreed they were very good and that it was appropriate to report their similarities and differences.
WU LIANG YE, 36 West 48th Street, New York NY; phone (212) 398-2308, is a second story restaurant within eye-shot of ice-skaters at Rockefeller Center.
GRAND SICHUAN CHINESE RESTAURANT, 125 Canal Street, New York NY; (212) 334-3323, looks out to the Manhattan Bridge, on the Chinatown-side of the East River.
Both restaurants have chefs from Sichuan, the home of fiery foods, both cook with lots of oil, and both serve many double-fried foods, a Sichuan speciality. Menus from each of these fine restaurants list Hot and Sour Soup, Dan Dan Noodles, Sesame Beef, General Tso's Chicken, and Ma Po Dou Fu (though these last items are spelled differently on each of them). Both eateries bill themselves serving original foods from this inland Chinese province, and they do.
What are their similarities and differences? One is that one can eat inexpensively in either of them, more expensively in the former, with somewhat more variety in the latter. Both restaurants are small and serve close to the same number of people but with slightly different main-course dinner items, 120 versus 148, respectively. Uptown, the menu offers more restaurant fare, downtown, more choices are closer to home cooking.
Wu Liang Ye, named after a well-known and expensive Chinese alcoholic beverage, is one of three branch restaurants with this name. The others are at 338 Lexington Avenue and 215 East 86th Street; all also in New York City's borough of Manhattan. This restaurant has white tablecloths, linen napkins, and uptown-style caring waters who put you napkin on your lap and frequently replace dirty plates with clean ones. Overall, service is better, noise level lower, the place more sparkling, and there is a choice of alcoholic beverages including the namesake one. There are also nine California wines listed on a small card on the table with a handful of them available by the glass ($4.25 to $4.75).
The Grand Sichuan Chinese Restaurant, its full name, is modest, and a place where you'll need to puts your own cloth napkin on your lap. The owner and not a waiter takes your order, he cares about your interest in his cuisine and works double-time to please. Beer is the only alcoholic beverage, wines and liquors are not available.
Both restaurants close at 10 pm, but you can get lunch an hour earlier (11 am) downtown. Both feature a fantastic Beef Tendon as a cold dish ($4.25 versus $6.95), a terrific Ox Tongue and Tripe (at those same prices), and Cold Noodles that uptown are called Chilled Noodles ($2.55 versus $3.50). The Asparagus and Crab Meat Soup tastes about the same in both places but it is referred to as Bisque uptown ($4.25 versus $7.95). Both soups serve two people generously.
Uptown at lunch, there are two dozen specials that come with a Spring Roll and a choice of steamed white or brown rice or fried rice. Ten of these luncheon items are piquant with chilli or are Szechuan-style entrees. Fourteen others are not spicy at all, and spicy or not, they cost $5.95 each. Downtown, only half that number of luncheon specials are available with half considered spicy, and most are more so than those uptown. Each of those twelve lunch specials comes with soup and white rice and any one of them costs from $2.95 to $3.45.
The ten rice and noodle dishes downtown are in the $2.95 to $4.95 price range, the eleven served uptown range from $5.95 to $7.95. Main dishes at dinner downtown are from $6.95 to $12.95 except for the one with lobster, that requires $3.00 more. Uptown, the dollar spread is $7.95 to $17.95 except for three lobster items up to $22.95 and a Roast Duck for $4.00 more than any of the lobster entrees.
With prices detailed and different, isn't taste the most important factor? You bet! All foods, with but one or two exceptions, were very good to great in both places. Portions sizes were comparable, sophistication less so. Uptown, the dishes had more decor and the appetizers tasted more piquant. However, that was not true among main courses. Downtown, the long cooked and tea-smoked dishes were more flavorful. The beef downtown, not common in this regional cuisine, was no match for the filet mignon used uptown.
In the final analysis, where should one go to eat very good Sichuan/Szechuan food? Clearly to both places. It depends upon where you are, what you can afford, how hungry you are, how many different tastes you want, and what kinds of food you prefer.
If you want more dishes for the same dollar, grab a bus and beat it downtown. If you like fancy service, can make steps to the dining room, are already or in need of going uptown, or it is price be dammed day, get a cab and head to some of the richest real estate in New York City. Oh, there is another consideration, and that is that for those who prefer more home-cooked tastes, head south, and if you have guests to impress, go the other way.
Yes, both are very fine Sichuan eateries. Yes, go out of your way for either or both of them. Uptown and downtown, they serve foods piquant or bland, but entirely authentic. Enjoy them both, we certainly did!
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