Wu Liang Ye and the Missing Baguette
I took a group of seven out to Wu Liang Ye, on 48th Street*, last Friday night. I’ve been arranging Chinese dinners for medium-to-large groups for about 25 years. It’s what I do for dinner parties, especially since I pretty much gave up serious cooking in the late ‘80s. I try to get an interesting, compatible group together, always making sure there are some at the table who are strangers to each other. This time the guest list had a theme, as there were a number of writers and publishing people I wanted to bring together.
Wu Liang Ye is, as far as I’m concerned, the nonpareil top Sichuan restaurant in New York today. I owe my discovery of the restaurant to Jeffrey Steingarten, who kvelled about it in one of his pieces. The food is authentic Sichuan cuisine.
Quasi-Sichuan cuisine, or quasi-Szechuan cuisine if you’re a diehard Wade-Gilesian, has become standard U.S. Chinese restaurant fare in the last thirty years. Somehow, in the 1970s, Sichuan and Hunan restaurants became all the rage in the U.S., their spicy fare replacing the Americanized Cantonese cuisine that had dominated Chinese restaurant menus for so long before. I remember that at the beginning there were some excellent Sichuan places in New York’s Chinatown, such as Hwa Yuan Szechuan Inn and Szechuan Taste, and especially Ting Fu Garden, but over time they all fell by the wayside. What was left throughout the city, but generally not in Chinatown, were the multitudes of Empire Szechuans and various mom & pop places with Szechuan or Hunan in their names serving dishes that are best described as gooey muck. Some make better gooey muck than others, but it’s still gooey muck, and gooey muck is not the name of a Chinese dish. These places are our modern chop suey joints.
In the ‘90s authentic Sichuan food returned to New York, most prominently at the Grand Sichuan restaurants. I’ve had excellent meals at the Grand Sichuan branches in Chelsea & Clinton (the neighborhood formerly known as Hell’s Kitchen), but Wu Liang Ye is in a league of its own.
I usually do my Chinese dinner parties in Chinatown, but this time I decided to go for something different than the Cantonese seafood places I usually choose. As I explained to one of the guests, who is French, Sichuan and Cantonese are both Chinese food in the same way that Alsatian and Provençal are both French food.
I do all the ordering at these dinners. It’s a rule. Take it or leave it. The only way to compose a Chinese menu that makes any sense is to have a single organizing intelligence at the helm. I do entertain requests and suggestions, and sometimes I take them. When I go back to a restaurant I’m familiar with I’ll usually order a number of dishes I know to be winners from experience, as well as new items to audition for the repertoire.
Our menu was as follows:
Ox tongue and tripe with roasted chili peanut vinaigrette. This was a cold dish and was requested by two of the guests, unbeknownst to each other. I was glad to oblige. It was a real winner, the peppery, tangy sauce a perfect accompaniment to the two meats. Cold tripe in Sichuan dishes has a dense, slightly rubbery consistency, more like that of stewed squid compared to the spongy texture of hot tripe.
Dan Dan noodles. Wu Liang Ye is famous for this dish, a Sichuan standard, also with a chili vinaigrette, along with minced pork. This is the apotheosis of spicy noodles.
Baby shrimp with scallion pesto. Another cold dish, and a disappointment. Rather low on flavor.
Pan seared dumplings (or pot stickers, or jiao zi). These need no explanation except that, as far as I’m concerned, Wu Liang Ye makes the best in New York.
Ma po tofu. Called bean curd Szechuan-style on many menus, this preparation of soft tofu with minced pork and plenty of chili and Sichuan peppercorn may well be the signature dish of Sichuan province. The authentic version, as I learned in China, can be quite oily, and at Wu Liang Ye the dish is authentically oily. Most run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurants will make a pallid, gummy version of the dish, usually without any noticeable trace of Sichuan peppercorns. I haven’t been to Chengdu, but the only places I’ve had ma po tofu in New York that compared to the dish as prepared at Sichuan restaurants in Hong Kong and Beijing have been Grand Sichuan and Wu Liang Ye.
Wok-roasted sea scallops with pepper-spiced salt. I don’t know if it’s a Sichuan dish, as it’s very similar to Cantonese spicy salt & pepper seafood dishes, though the breading is a bit crispier. The scallops are wonderfully fresh and perfectly moist within the coating. I know one couple who keep going back to satisfy cravings for this dish after having tried it at one of my dinners.
Braised fish filets and Napa cabbage with roasted chili. The fish filets are tilapia, and they are served breaded in a hearty, spicy red sauce–there was something just a bit reminiscent of pescado à la Veracruzana about it.
Braised shitake with baby bok choi. Frankly, vegetables are not the restaurant’s strong suit.
Camphor tea-smoked duck. This is another one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, and it’s my personal favorite. The duck is perfectly moist, the skin crisp and just slightly salty. For me this dish is a championship contender in both the duck and the smoked meat divisions.
Stir-fried bacon with spicy capsicum. This was the last of our dishes to arrive. The same two who had lobbied for the tongue and tripe were hot to try this one. I had enjoyed the smoky beef with spicy capsicum before, but the bacon left it in the dust. It was pretty much just thin slices of bacon, not crisp at all but sufficiently meaty, along with slivers of spicy green peppers, and it blew me away. But as I ate it something kept gnawing at me. As great as the dish was, something seemed to be missing, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.
Several days later it came to me, a revelation. The bacon was crying out to be made into a sandwich! The missing link was bread. It would be so perfect, I decided, this fantastic, spicy bacon on a world-class baguette. I imagined the experience of biting through the crust, through the dough, arriving at the bacon, chewing off a chunk and having the bread and the meat marry in my mouth as I blissfully chewed away. Yes, definitely.
As I thought about it a little more I also decided I wouldn’t kick a couple of fried eggs out of the sandwich.
* I've only been to the one on W. 48th Street. There are two other branches, Murray Hill and Upper East Side.