A gastronomic journey of Sichuan flavours

The last time we visited Si Chuan Dou Hua at Beach Road, we ordered from their ala carte menu. While we were waiting for our food to arrive, we saw big trays of numerous small plates being served to many tables around us.

We discretely asked our waitress what the other diners were having and were told that they were having the limited season tasting menu, grandly named “A Gastronomic Journey of Sichuan Flavours”.

Fancy.

A quick count of the menu revealed that there were 35 dishes(!) in total, earning the right to call itself a gastronomic journey. Of course, we were happy with the ala carte dishes that we had already ordered, but as the trays of food keep being served to our neighbours, we couldn’t help but feel curious, and just a little bit envious.

So obviously we had to have it and paid a return visit a few weeks later, with our fellow foodie friend ML. The dinner was disguised as a catch-up chit-chat session but basically it was an excuse to stuff our faces.

The first tray started out innocently enough, with six small plates of cold dishes spanning veggies, meat and seafood. We weren’t told the proper sequence to eat them, so I just assumed that there wasn’t any and happily pecked at each dish randomly.

The lettuce-like veggie with sesame dressing (麻酱凤尾) was the first bite and it was a good start because it was probably one of the best sesame dressings I’ve had. Rich, but not too rich; creamy, but not too creamy and definitely very sesame. The finely julienned carrots wrapped in radish (珊瑚雪卷) was soaked in some sweet citrusy vinegar and was very refreshing, and the shredded chicken in “strange sauce” (怪味鸡丝) was savoury with a hint of spice.

So far so good.

But then I bit into the sad-looking piece of smoked fish with mixed spices (五香熏鱼) and it was cold and dry. Yes, I know it’s supposed to be a cold dish, and maybe that’s why it was also dry; but cold, dry fish is not for me.

The prawn in tomato sauce (茄汁大虾) tasted exactly as advertised — prawn in tomato sauce. It made me wonder why it was on the menu in the first place. Thankfully, the marinated eel with orange peel (香辣鳗鱼) was delightfully tasty; and even though it was also cold, the eel was still juicy.

We were then served a flute of sakura sake, junmai daiginjyo no less. I’m always skeptical of food items involving sakura and find that the hype far exceeds the taste.

My first run-in with sakura anything was a box of sakura mochi bought from the Haneda Airport duty-free during the peak of sakura season. As expected, the packaging was beautiful and each individually-wrapped mochi contained a sakura leaf within. But upon biting into it, the damp sakura leaf just tasted stale and sour to me.

Sakura blossoms are achingly pretty when they’re in full bloom, and especially during hanami season. Maybe eating a sakura leaf wrapped in a mochi is meant to evoke an image of ephemeral pink blossoms gently floating to the ground, blanketing the grass with a sea of kawaii; but at least make it taste good, that’s all I ask.

And also, what does sakura sake have to do with Sichuan food?

Having gotten all that off my chest, I have to say that the sake was fantastic! It completely wiped out the bad memory of my sakura mochi and replaced it with an image of ephemeral pink blossoms… Well, you get the idea. Perhaps Chengdu also has a lot of sakura trees?

On to the second tray. This time it contained nine plates that somehow fit exactly, but it was probably just a fortunate co-incidence rather than being deliberately engineered.

First, the misses. It’s hard to mess up wasabi prawns, but somehow they did. The prawn tasted it like it was fried a long time ago and sauce tasted generic. Likewise for the lone shitake mushroom, which was totally forgettable.

The good news is that all the other dishes were good.

The spicy diced chicken (重庆辣子鸡) was a tasty morsel of chicken and chilli and a big basket of it would make a wonderful snack with cold cold beer. The sea clam in garlic and chilli sauce (蒜泥鲍贝) was plump and juicy, even though it probably came out of a can.

ML doesn’t eat pig’s kidney so I had a double portion of the sliced pig’s kidney with chilli oil (红油腰花), full of its unmistakably gamey taste that went well with the chilli oil. Cut the richness by alternating bites with the spinach in ginger sauce (姜汁菠菜).

The scallops with minced pepper and spring onion sauce (椒麻带子) looked like it would taste mild, but it packed a surprising punch. It wasn’t the in-your-face mapo tofu level of spiciness as the spring onion reduced the aggressiveness of the Sichuan pepper. But the presence of the pepper was clearly felt given the tingling numbness that lingers after each bite. I spooned every last drop of the precious liquid.

Something new that I tried for the first time was the sliced beef and tripe in chilli sauce (夫妻肺片). My good friend Google tells me that it’s a classic Sichuan dish made with meat and offal like heart, tongue and stomach. I could clearly identify the stomach because of the honeycomb structure, but I couldn’t quite tell which slices were the tongue and heart. Regardless, the combination of different textures made it an interesting dish.

Canned soup was served next.

Seriously.

There was a choice of either chicken or red chilli broth, but otherwise the ingredients were identical — two baby lobsters, one big abalone and various other seafood. Despite the gimmicky presentation, both soup and seafood were top-notch. The Wife’s clear soup was light, refreshing and tasted of the sea.

I chose the red chilli broth, which may have been too optimistic of me, because it had an almost inch-thick of red chilli oil floating on top. The flavour was equally good, but getting through the oil was challenging. My first mouthful resulted in a coughing fit and I ended up just having the ingredients and stealing a few spoons of soup from The Wife’s can.

By now, we were starting to feel full. But the food kept coming.

Tray number three focused on meat and more seafood. We had the braised pork belly with honey sauce (樱桃肉) during our previous lunch, and this tasting portion remained consistently good. The braised sea cucumber in Sichuan bean paste (家常海参) was new but the chewy yet gelatinous texture was comfortingly familiar.

The stir-fried cuttlefish with lychee sauce (荔枝鲜鱿) was borderline nasty. I’m not a fan of cuttlefish to start with, but the overly fishy taste and mushy texture made it worse. I wasn’t the only one to react so negatively because none of us managed to finish our portions. Luckily, all the remaining dishes were fine.

Tray four.

I did say earlier that they were going to serve 35 dishes.

The first thing I did was to pass the bittergourd (酱烧凉瓜) to The Wife, because she loves bittergourd and I’m generally a considerate person. Plus also, I hate bittergourd with every fibre of my being. But mainly because of the first reason (I can imagine her rolling her eyes and going “yeah, right” as she reads this).

Similar to the previous time we had it, the mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐) unfortunately remained mild and innocent like a cute defenseless Corgi puppy, instead of the snarling fully-grown German Shepherd that it should be. If you’re looking for mean and angry mapo tofu, you won’t find it here.

What you will find though are classic Sichuan dishes like the steamed pork belly in the sweet sauce (甜烧白), shown in the middle of the photo below. I had never heard of it before, let alone taste this unique combination of sweet and sticky glutinous rice with fatty pork belly. Is it a main course? Is it a dessert? It didn’t matter to me, because either way, I finished it all.

When our waitress cleared out trays and asked if we were ready to have our noodles, I’m sure she could see visible signs of distress on our faces. Thankfully, they came in small portions. Similar to the soup, there were two options but this time the spicy version (not pictured here) was less toxic and more palatable, with the same broth as their spicy noodles with bean curd (酸辣豆花面).

We finally reached the dessert course, which comprised glutinous rice ball with red bean (珍珠圆子), home-made bean curd with wolfberries (枸杞豆花) and the dramatically named “Sichuan glorious pancake” (甜糍粑).

I haven’t been impressed with the “glorious pancakes” I’ve had in other restaurants before, but this version was actually quite good. Crispy on the outside, and not too mochi-like in the inside. I wouldn’t exactly call it glorious, but it was at least splendid.

Our meal started at around 7pm and by the time we finished, it was close to 10pm. It was a solid three-hour marathon of tray-after-tray, plate-after-plate of non-stop food.

So, would I consider the dinner a “Gastronomic Journey of Sichuan Flavours”? Most definitely yes.

There were some misses (like the awful cuttlefish) and some dubious choices (like the puzzling tomato prawn), but I give it a solid 8 out of 10 and The Wife gives it a respectable 7. It would have been glorious if they had cut down on the number of dishes, and focused more on making sure the surviving ones were consistently of high quality.

There were some dishes which were clearly not from Sichuan (I’m looking at you, wasabi prawns) and could have been replaced with more authentic choices, like their fantastic prawns and diced chicken with dried chilli (宫保龙凤球). But overall, it was a lovely dinner and a great way to spend a leisurely three hours.

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