Sichuan House Seafood

September 5, 2013

395 Victoria Street, Richmond
Two weekends ago I was very kindly invited as a guest to Sichuan House Seafood in Richmond by owner Peter Lin Hu. I brought along S, M and Mr N, and we were lucky enough to try a good number of standout dishes on the menu. Peter also owns Sichuan House in the CBD, which reopened just yesterday following renovations, allowing city workers and students alike to satisfy their Sichuan cravings once more.I know people use the word ‘craving’ all too often, but in this case I think it really is a craving in the true meaning of the word. A deep, unswayable thirst for that salty/spicy, tongue tingling buzz one gets when eating Sichuan food. It’s all due to the Sichuan peppercorn (in fact seed pods from ash trees, not pepper per se), here used in fresh, dried, and pink forms. The result is a nuanced and balanced style of cooking: calling Sichuan ‘spicy’ belies the complex and fragrant flavours tasted in all of our dishes.

Sichuan House Seafood sits near the corner of Victoria Street and Church Street and, from our experience there, serves a population of local Chinese families and couples. Admittedly, the lighting is a bit too harsh and the decor too shiny to be very warming, but the inviting ‘Hello!’ you received upon arrival gives way to a meal of attentive and friendly service, right through to the ‘Good night!’ you hear as you leave the door.

We were very well taken care of by the restaurant manager, Jerry, who, after assessing whether we had any requests (I did), asked whether we were happy for him to pick a selection of some of the best dishes (we were). What followed can only be described as a feast. To begin, an enormous pile of green beans, blistered briefly in a wok and topped with a sinfully salty crumble of pork mince. What a fantastic way to start the meal.

Kung pao chicken (also called Gongbao jiding) is a beautifully aromatic stir fry of chicken, peanuts, spring onions and dried red chillies. Its a little sweet on the tongue first, and then you get hints of tingly lemon from the Sichuan peppercorns, and finally a gradually built up heat from the dried chilli. Very moreish, we continued to pick at this throughout the meal.

The cumin pork ribs were a table-wide success. After S had the first taste, eyes wide in surprise and pleasure, we all dived into the pile, pulling the soft and fatty dry-spiced pork off its bones with our teeth. It had a fantastic triple-heat factor from Sichuan pepper, chilli and cumin. I especially loved this dish because it wasn’t oily at all. In fact all of our dishes had a lightness that I though uncharacteristic of Chinese food (though pleasantly welcome!)

It was at this point that Peter’s explanation of his style of cooking began to make sense. The Sichuan province in South-Western China has many regional cooking styles: two popular variations are Chongqing and Chengdu. Chongqing is perhaps the caricature of Sichuan cooking, intensely spiced, salty and oily. Chengdu, which is the style at Peter’s Sichuan Houses, is also spicy but less intensely so, and is often balanced with other flavours to produce a style of cooking that is more varied.

I’m tempted to say that the ‘ants climbing a tree’ was Mr N’s favourite dish (so named because it is said to resemble a moving mass of ants scurrying around). While I tucked into piece after piece of my favourite eggplant dish, he made a sizeable dint in this enormous pile of vermicelli noodles, wok tossed with pork and other goodies until smoky and flavoursome. Much like the kung pao chicken, this dish had a slight spiciness to it but nothing fatal.

My favourite from the evening was the fish flavoured eggplant (or Yuxing eggplant), which is something of a misnomer as this dish as no fish products in it. Forget fish, instead think of golden batons of creamy eggplant, fried until crisp like chips, with a front-of-palate sweetly spicy kick from the sticky sauce. Absolutely sensational, a must order.

I’ve written repeatedly in this post about how each dish was complex, nuanced and well balanced. It feels like the chefs understand the meaning of restraint, where chefs in other restaurants would prefer to throw in excesses of keynote items such as chilli or coriander or Mexican hot sauce at the expense of skilful balancing of flavours. It also feels like the real deal. This is authentic and thoughtful Chinese cooking, and I would love to see more of its kind in Melbourne.

 

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Filed under: Chinese, Richmond

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