Maybe this post should be subtitled "How I feel about Grand Sichuan after living in China and teaching Sichuan cooking for a living."
While I had never in love with the Grand Sichuan chainlet around New York, it had always been a dependable source of cheap, tasty, and spicy food. It was also a source of fond memories. A year after college, having finally escaped the suburbs of Boston, my earlytwentysomething self had spent the first summer in the city exploring every single recommendation from a battered copy of Time Out's Cheap Eats issue. At the time, it was my bible. Grand Sichuan seemed to be the go-to Chinese restaurant outside Chinatown, so I dutifully tried all the locations, from St. Marks to Hells Kitchen to Murray Hill. That summer, like all others in New York, was unbearable. Eating sweat-inducing dishes like Chongqing chicken and mapo tofu in an air-conditioned environment was, really, the only way to eat spicy dishes in 95-degree humidity.
Yet, as somewhat of a stickler for authenticity, I was always irked by Grand Sichuan's highlighting Shanghainese xiao long bao on the menus. The long list of Cantonese dishes, "Diet" dishes, and Americanized stuff like Orange Flavored Chicken didn't help, either. While each trip ended with me and my companion(s) stuffing our faces and delightfully bringing home leftovers, something still felt amiss.
Earlier this week my friend Elizabeth and I went on my first post-China outing to a Grand Sichuan, this time to the Chelsea branch. I was no longer a wide-eyed neophyte. How would the food compare to the food at all the great Sichuanese places I ate at during my two years abroad? My standards, surely, would be a little higher, after having taught countless Sichuan cooking classes in Beijing.
Well, the wontons got the meal off to a disappointing start. I had gotten used to silky, almost glossy nuggets of flavorful pork swimming in a numbingly spicy chili sauce. What we got were sad imitations. The minced pork inside was bland and tough, and the skin was almost leathery. The eggplant in garlic sauce was not much better, with overcooked eggplant pieces drowning in oil that was actually not even garlicky. My face was starting to droop until the tea-smoked duck came.
The duck! Oh, this was a good choice. The duck was actually better than I remembered, with very juicy skin that was crispy in all the right places. There was less of a soy taste than usual, but still flavorful enough to not warrant the hoisin sauce on the side. It was almost like eating very good Peking duck, without all the fanfare.
The dry-fried green beans were also a pleasant surprise after the wontons and eggplant, as satisfying as any version you'd find in Chengdu. Granted, this is not an elaborate preparation like tea-smoked duck, but you would be surprised how many places mess up this quintessential homestyle Sichuan dish. The key to great dry-fried green beans is controlling the temperature and speed at which you're frying them, and luckily these were crisp without being too burnt, and well-cooked without being too mushy or oily.
By the end of the meal I had almost forgotten about the sorry excuses for wontons. Grand Sichuan may not deserve all its accolades, but it gets points for being cheap and churning out reliable versions of "the classics". Now I'm curious about the "Mao's Home Cooking" side of their menu, which looks to be all-Hunan.
Grand Sichuan International
229 9th Ave. (at 24th St.)
New York, NY
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