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Cuisine Szechuan: Hot stuff

Hot stuff

More sizzle in the downtown scene, Szechuan style
Photo: Marianne McEwen

Cuisine Szechuan takes the edge off a bland winter with fiery and flavourful food

If you call your new restaurant "Cuisine Szechuan" and festoon your business cards with images of chili peppers, there’s not a whole lot of mystery as to what you’re dishing up. And I say bravo. Why pussyfoot around? It’s better than the usual "Jade Lily Panda" or "Double Golden Dragon Panda" or whatever.

Cuisine Szechuan is located on Guy below Sherbrooke, in the smallish space where Santangelo’s (and its veal parm sandwiches) used to be. The joint was absolutely packed with young Chinese students from Concordia and thereabouts, who clearly relished the opportunity to get away from all the ersatz pan-Asian noodleries in the area. They certainly weren’t there for the décor: Sure, there’s a nice exposed stone wall and a few paintings on the walls, but this is a place built for eating, not design. Most tables are for groups of a least four people, with total seating for about 60.

The menu is very similar to Tapioca Thé (the bubble tea emporium/Chinese restaurant, whose former cook is indeed, I confirmed, in the kitchen), extensive and focused on more interesting items than many Chinese menus in town – there’s lots here for adventurous eaters, vegetarians included. A huge, cold appetizer of spicy beef tripe was just great. The satisfyingly chewy tripe strands, finely filigreed and honeycombed, were coated in a thin, incendiary broth and topped with deep-fried crispy soybeans. A bed of cucumber wedges helped cut the intensity. Another massive dish of thinly sliced pork tongue and heart was a blisteringly hot delight. It was larded with coarsely chopped garlic, pickled chilies, salted chilies, Szechuan peppercorns and all the flavours of the five-spice rainbow, with a particular accent on clove and star anise. It was offally good.

Eggplant with more of the same glorious garlic was restrained in comparison, but equally stunning. Large slabs of young, firm eggplant were bathed in a lightly sweet sauce of bean paste and chili oil that didn’t overwhelm the eggplant in either taste or texture. The last plate, homestyle tofu, was the only one that wasn’t superlative. It was still good, though, with big hunks of chewy fried tofu, baby corn, snow peas and bamboo shoots coated in a chili paste sauce, and much better than a typical stir-fry.

Bottom line? Cuisine Szechuan is already on the short list of the best Chinese restaurants in town. One caveat to those not used to the savage joys of authentic Szechuan cooking: This is rich, oily, heavy and intensely salty food. It’s not for the faint of heart. But luckily, it is for those fond of heart.

Cuisine Szechuan
2350 Guy; 514-933-5041
Dinner for two, before tax and tip: $20-$35
Questions? Comments? Bitter rants? jkarpati@hour.ca

ooo

Karpati throws down with some year-end opinions:

Best food trend in 2008? Well, I’ll have to go with booze here. I loathe the SAQ, and won’t rest easy until its soak-the-common-drinker mentality and throttling of drink diversity hits the dustbin of history. But hey, I’ll give credit where it’s due: It’s getting a lot better. From increasing beer selection to include quality bitters from England to improving availability of quality, affordable offerings from Spain, Germany and Austria, to actually selling some good sherry, bourbon and sake, the monopoly is becoming almost tolerable. Almost.

Worst food trend of 2008? Can we please stop with the bistros and the French restaurants? (Yes, I know we live in Quebec, thanks.) I love them, you love them. But we have more than enough of them to last a looong time. A little more diversity, particularly in high-end cuisine (and not just lame attempts at fusion) would help greatly in making Montreal a more interesting food city. Merci.

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