Anyone who knows me knows that I crave spicy food. So naturally, I was excited when I saw the sign for the new Szechuan Gourmet at 105th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue.
Though certain dishes deliver on the promise of spicy—and tasty—Szechuan-style food, the real mastery shows through in milder and more affordable dishes. Nothing, though, is really anything to write home about, and the restaurant doesn't provide any compelling reason not to save yourself four blocks of walking and just eat at Legend on 109th Street instead.
I started out with hot and sour soup—a dish that's usually pretty hard to make poorly—and was satisfied. My friend and I also ordered the spicy Szechuan pork dumplings. There were eight dumplings, plenty for two people, and they were delicious. Served sitting in chili oil so that the flavor really gets into the pork, these dumplings were a portent of good—and spicy—things to come.
For the main entrée, we shared the braised beef with napa cabbage and roasted chilies and the stir-fried chicken with roasted chili and peanuts. Just looking at the beef was enough to strike fear into my heart—not an easy feat, but one that this dish accomplished. Simmering in a broth of chili oil and sitting on a bed of cabbage, the beef was covered (caked, really) in chili peppers. I eagerly dug in, and the beef didn't disappoint. It was tender and, as the four tiny chili peppers next to the dish on the menu suggest, incredibly spicy. Whole cloves of garlic and the cabbage offered some respite from the heat, but it wasn't easily beaten.
Additionally, the beef toed the line between spicy and tasty. That is, it's one thing to make a hot dish, and it's entirely another to make a hot dish that would still taste good with the spice removed. There were moments when flavor shone through the spice, but not many.
Luckily the chicken, like the soup, was an exemplar of a simple dish done right. The sauce was perfectly spicy and sweet, and the chicken, like the beef, was tender.
Looking back on the meal and at the take-out menu I spirited away on my way out of the restaurant, I was saddened by the fact that I went at dinner instead of lunch. The dinner for two ran at about $20 apiece, but the lunch menu is where Szechuan Gourmet will likely shine, with most of the lunch options coming with soup and rice for under $8.
Generally, though, the food at Szechuan Gourmet isn't bad by any means. But at the same time, it doesn't do much to distinguish itself from other Szechuan restaurants in the neighborhood. Just having good food doesn't do much for a Chinese restaurant, especially with the sheer number of them in the neighborhood and the city. As much as I wanted something new and different, Szechuan Gourmet is simply another solid, if potentially pricey, venue for passable Chinese food.