Sichuan food get its distinct flavor from Sichuan peppercorns and fiery chili oil, but the food is not strictly about hot spice. CHOW.com Contributing Editor Pervaiz Shallwani filed this report for NY1 on Cafe China in time for the Chinese New Year, which starts on Monday.
Cafe China is a new addition to the city’s vibrant Sichuan scene, where husband and wife owners Xian Zhang and Yiming Wang left careers on Wall Street to create a restaurant that invokes the boom of 1930s Shanghai.
They’ve created a space that goes beyond the city’s mostly drab Chinese spots, where Chef Lu and a team of Sichuan-born chefs execute a tightly curated menu of Sichuan dishes.
Sichuan food is among the most daring of Chinese cuisines. The most recognizable dishes come laced with spicy red chili oil and spiked with Sichuan peppercorns to give them that distinct tingly mouth feel known as "ma la."
But Sichuan food is not only about mouth-numbing spice, and the Szechuan-style braised pork shows the diverse cooking of this land-locked Chinese province.
Lu starts by braising a chunk of pork belly in hot water for 45 minutes until it is soft, then coats it in a secret soy sauce marinade, deep-fries it in a wok to brown the skin and cook off some of the excess fat and then cuts it into thin slices.
Next, he layers the pork slices snugly in a bowl, tops it with a stir-fried mix of pickled Sichuan mustard greens, ladles it with a seasoning that includes soy sauce, Hoisin sauce, salt and sugar, covers it all with plastic wrap and steams the dish for 90 minutes.
The dish is topped with sautéed spinach to order and turned over onto a plate, making sure to retain its artful dome.
The result is caramelized pork that is rich but tender and filled with hints of spice, sweet and salt. The deep-flavored greens are addictive, giving off a slight tang that balances the remaining fat in the pork.
The food here is meant to be eaten family style, so pair it with the aptly named Mouth Watering Chicken, the meaty Husband and Wife, pepper-packed Ma Po Tofu and the Spicy Cumin Lamb for a complete lesson in Sichuan cooking.
Cafe China is located at 13 E. 37th St. between Fifth and Madison Avenues. For more dining recommendations, visit CHOW.com.