Sichuan cuisine has been firing up the tastebuds of Singaporeans for decades, but it is still not easy to find a restaurant here that brings the true flavour of the spicy dishes from the Chinese province.
The more upmarket Sichuan restaurants here tend to tone down the chillies and peppers to cater to diners who cannot handle the spices, while casual eateries in Chinatown and Geylang are often too rough in their execution to represent the cuisine at its best.
The unimaginatively named Szechuan Cuisine in Santa Grand Hotel is among the few here to offer authentic Sichuan cooking in a more refined manner.
Its Chinese name, Chuan Wang Ji, is however more imaginative and translates into the unabashed Mark Of The Sichuan King.
Despite the royal name, prices are aimed at the middle-income diner. The decor is simple but comfortable with a few semi-private and private rooms, marking it a family- friendly restaurant rather than one for power lunches or banquets.
The restaurant opened in June, taking over the space formerly occupied by Peramakan next to the hotel lobby. It boasts a chef newly arrived from Chengdu, who keeps the food true to its roots.
Santa Grand Hotel East Coast, 171 East Coast Road 01-02/03, tel: 6440-0497
Open: 11.30am to 2.30pm, 5.30 to 9.30pm. Closed on Tuesday
Price: Budget about $40 a person
The spicy dishes come with a choice of three levels of spiciness, with the default set at the medium level. That, for me, is just right - the food is spicy enough to cause beads of sweat to form on my forehead in minutes, but not so much that my mouth burns with fire or my tongue goes numb.
And different dishes come with different levels of heat and combinations of spices, so you do not feel like you are hammered by one bolt of fire after another.
A dish you must try is the Hot And Sour Fern Root Noodles ($8.80). The noodles, made from starch extracted from bracken fern, look like flour noodles but have a murky colour and are smooth and very springy. You have to toss them with a bit of dark vinegar, and mix in minced garlic, spring onions and chillies before eating. Served chilled, the flavours are very appetising and the texture pleasant.
Another dish that I like so much that I order it both times I dine at Szechuan Cuisine is the Boiled Fish Fillet With Preserved Vegetables And Green Chilli ($22). The sourness of the vegetables and the mild heat from the chilli make a wonderful palate-rouser and a good broth for the fish.
In China, most restaurants use freshwater fish for this dish, but Szechuan Cuisine uses marble goby instead, a sea fish with a smooth and firm texture, and not many small bones.
The serving is very generous, enough for three or four persons. I order it with a few other dishes for two persons and, both times, cannot finish it.
The Chicken With Chilli Sauce ($10.80) passes muster too, with a well-balanced spicy and garlicky sauce that offers just enough kick. And the pieces of chicken thigh are tender and smooth, unlike the dry breast meat or bony wings I have encountered at many eateries.
Another good chicken dish is the Wok-fried Chicken With Red And Green Chilli ($20), a fiery dish where the chicken pieces are tossed in high heat till they get dry and fragrant outside while the meat stays moist and tender inside. The chillies are fragrant too, but it takes a brave person to finish them.
I am, however, disappointed with the Braised Bean Curd In Special Bean Sauce ($16). Also called mapo tofu, the version here lacks the distinctive sting and aroma of Sichuan peppers that makes the dish such a well-known representative of Sichuan cuisine. It is decent but not memorable.
The restaurant also serves a number of Cantonese dishes to cater to those who do not enjoy spicy food.
The Wok-fried Rice Noodles With Seafood In Egg White Sauce ($22) is excellent. It boasts the smoky flavour of a red-hot wok and the barely cooked egg white thickens the sauce into a smooth, delicious gravy.
It is a good example of how, despite its name, Szechuan Cuisine is equally adept at non-spicy cooking.
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•Life paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.