Dainty Sichuan – South Yarra MLB

The dinner invitation promised “Hot Pot”. A supposedly very well done “Hot Pot” at that, which is no surprise that I was feeling a little flat and underwhelmed to discover that my punctual friends have made the executive decision to not have hot-pot and order off the a la carte menu instead.

The restaurant is divided into two levels. The ground level of diners get to experience the AMAZING, bubbling steam boat. The level above is reserved for patrons who want to diminish their rights to order a hot-pot because these facilities are simply not available on that floor.

The four of us were escorted to a table upstairs and given… an a la carte menu. I only have a couple of issues with this arrangement;

(One). you can’t change your mind even if you wanted to…

…and (Two). you can’t even have a peak at what you’re missing out on (which probably works better for the restaurant because then you have incentive to come back).

I get it, it’s a safety thing, I’m not completely ignorant… moving along!

Opening the menu, all I’m seeing is CHILLI! Chilli Chicken, Chilli Beef Jerk and even Chilli Cabbage. After sifting through all the chilli, offal and Chinese delicacies like Chicken Feet and Pigs Ear we finally decide on one cold dish of garlic cucumbers, four hot main dishes of Gong Qing Chilli Chicken, Stewed Lamb Ribs, Chilli Fish Fillets, Green Beans with Pork Mixture and two types of buns, Xioalong Bao and pork buns. (Xioalong Bao’s are only called dumplings outside of China.)

This cold dish of Cucumber and Garlic is an old favorite of mine, I grew up with it and when I make it at home I add chilli oil for extra kick. There’s not much that can go wrong with this dish unless you’re using rotten cucumbers. As pleasant as this dish is, there’s a little too much garlic but for nostalgic reasons I will eat all of it unashamedly.

Our first main of Gong Qing Chilli Chicken definitely lives up to its name. The dish hits the table in a mound of dry chilli and sichuan pepper, if you poke around a little you might even find some chicken underneath. When I do find chicken it’s 50% bone and the other half is deep-fried meat. The taste is delightful like anything fried in oil, the flavors are typically Sichuan, numbing my mouth but in a pleasant way. So far it’s tasting like Sichuan usually does…

The Stewed Lamb Ribs is the next to arrive. I knew I’d like this dish as soon as it hit the table. I could smell the aromas of star anise and a braising liquid that could only be achieved with patience and nothing short of a secret recipe. It came in a cast iron pot surrounded by wood and the lamb was bubbling away as if you were going to sneak a spoonful directly from the stove.

This was the turning point for me, the juicy, tender lamb meat melted off the bones. The sauce was to die for because it had so much depth to it and it wasn’t just dried chilli and peppers. It reminded me of a Taiwanese goat hot-pot (Yang-Rou) I use to love as a kid and still love now, but with richer flavors. This one was a winner.

All of a sudden I didn’t even mind the chicken hidden in the mound of chilli, it was exciting going back and forth between the two dishes, the flavors actually complement each other.

You’ll have to forgive me for this photo of the Chilli Fish beside the Gong Qing Chicken taken from my phone camera instead of my point and shoot. To be honest, this was the recommendation I was least looking forward to. I’ve had a dish very similar to this one and it just tasted like chilli oil with a fish texture. Not pleasant, I know! So when this dish came, my expectations were not high. It looked like fish fillets bathing in chilli oil and bean sprouts. It even came with a slotted ladle so that the fillets can be drained before being dished onto your plate.

There are a few things that could go wrong with this dish. One in particular is the delicate flavor that can become lost in the chilli oil. Why is this a problem? Because fish needs to taste like fish, otherwise you should just drink the oil!

The first bite of the fish… is surprisingly not too bad. The fillet of fish melted in my mouth revealing the sweetness of the flesh with a hint of chilli at the back of the throat, but then the heat spreads and I’m left wanting more. I’ve got to give credit where credit’s due… this is not the healthiest of choices but the fish is done well. I may not be back for it but I was content with it.

Green Beans with Pork Mixture is a trusty, old dish. I love it and if it’s on the menu, I will order it every time. Beats eating and paying for overpriced Bok Choy in oyster sauce.

The beans were cooked perfectly, the way green beans should be cooked, dry fried in a wok. The pork mixture on the other hand was too salty and I assume it’s because the preserved vegetables that are stir fried with the pork mince was not rinsed properly. Eaten together, it was heavenly but needless to say there was a generous layer of pork and preserved vegetable mix left behind on the plate.

The Xioalong Bao’s were delicious and perfect. There was consistency in the thickness of the skin, which is important because when it’s too thin they break too easily when being picked up and the soupy goodness leaks out. When that happens, a little part of me dies because the “bao” is now flawed… so luckily that didn’t happen or I wouldn’t be able to write this post for you.

The Pork Buns are not the typical Chinese ones with the sweet BBQ pork filling but with the same pork mixture as the green beans but not as salty. Downfall for this dish is that there’s too much casing and too little filling. I found myself tearing off chunks of the bun so I could get to the filling. It could be a great and cheap lunch time meal because you get four per serving, but for dinner it was a little too much. It probably didn’t help the situation that it was one of the last dishes to arrive and we were all extremely stuffed. The serving sizes at Dainty Sichuan are very generous.

The evening turned out to be extremely pleasant and I left wanting to come back again with more of my friends. I will definitely be back to try the Hot Pot on that first level and maybe a side of that Lamb Stew that I’m still thinking about. I give Dainty Sichuan three NOMS out of a possible five!!

NOM NOM NOM

and yes… it WAS worth every calorie.

Love Lee Lee =)

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