Who'd have imagined 15 years ago, when you'd have been hard-pressed to find a real Sichuan restaurant in New York, that a single block of W. 39th St., between 5th & 6th Avenues, would be host to two of the best and most authentic Sichuan restaurants in all of New York City?
It started 2004, when Szechuan Gourmet, a Flushing restaurant, opened a Manhattan outpost on the block. I first tried it in 2006
. True Sichuan cooking had returned to Manhattan in the '90s, with the Grand Sichuan and Wu Liang Ye mini-chains. While I found some dishes at Grand Sichuan to be excellent, Wu Liang Ye
always seemed to be a notch or two up. Then Szechuan Gourmet came along, and it was clearly in the same league as Wu Liang Ye.
Lan Sheng, at 60 W. 39th, opened late last year on the same block as Szechuan Gourmet. It's possible that this was deliberate. Szechuan Gourmet had become extremely popular after a Frank Bruni two-star review
in the Times in 2008 (no doubt following the leads of enthusiastic foodies on sites like Chowhound). Szechuan Gourmet is always crowded at lunch and often at dinner, so perhaps the Lan Sheng owners hoped to attract diners who weren't up for a long wait. In any case, with the opening of Lan Sheng, which I'd say is in the same class as the best of Manhattan's Sichuan restaurants (granted, based on one meal, but with a large-enough sampling), let me be the first to give the block the honorary name "Little Chengdu."
I think when dealing with the top echelon of restaurants in any regional Chinese cuisine the question isn't which is the best but rather which dishes are best at which place. And in many cases it boils down to a matter of preference among two good but different versions of the same dish. For me Lan Sheng seemed to shine especially in the seafood department.
One of our favorite dishes was the sea scallops with yibin yacai spice (photo at top). On the menu the dish features prawns, but we were told they were all out of prawns (very odd at 7PM on a weeknight, I must say). But the scallops were absolutely fresh, plump and delicious. Yibin yacai is a kind of pickled vegetable mixed with minced pork that is stir fried with shrimp or string beans usually, and is a specialty of Yibin city in Sichuan province.
Perhaps even better were the fish cubes with pickled chilies. This may be a Hunan rather than a Sichuan dish (I don't normally see pickled chilies on Sichuan menus, but they were all over the menu at Flushing's Hunan House
). Abundant cubes of tilapia filet were served in a sauce that had a complex flavor, hard to pin down completely, of which the pickled chilies were but one component. The dish is very, but not overwhelmingly, spicy. I don't believe it features Sichuan peppercorns, so it doesn't have that mentholated tingle of some of the other dishes, and therefore provides a nice flavor balance to a meal.
Gui Zhou chicken is a spicy dish I know from the Grand Sichuan restaurants, where the chicken chunks are served on the bone. At Lan Sheng it's boneless and somewhat less spicy. Very good in its way, but this is one dish that I think is the real star at Grand Sichuan.
Lan Sheng's camphor tea smoked duck was outstanding, just a cut below the version at Wu Liang Ye, which I consider the gold standard. The skin was crispy, and the meat was sweet and tender with most excess fat cooked out. I prefer this to the fattier, less crispy version across the street at Szechuan Gourmet.
But the lamb with cumin, served here with a moist, spicy cumin paste, was no match for Szechuan Gourmet's dry, crispy version.
Though most Sichuan restaurants serve cold dishes with chili vinaigrette, I don't believe I've seen it with scungilli elsewhere. Ultimately, I think this preparation fares better with meat, especially ox tongue and tripe, a common Sichuan menu item.
Lan Sheng's version of dan dan noodles is a bit unorthodox. I don't think I've ever had the dish with crushed peanuts before, and the sauce was thicker and sweeter than most, with less of a Sichuan peppercorn kick. I wasn't thrilled.
If you've been to Szechuan Gourmet before, give Lan Sheng a try. If you haven't been to either, I'd say Szechuan Gourment gets the edge, unless you're more inclined toward seafood than meat dishes.