Subtlety is a relative concept. There's the subtlety in the haute cuisine of L'Escoffier's descendants, which challenges the educated gourmet to pick out an extra sprig of thyme or a Bordeaux versus a Côtes du Rhône in each mild, sumptuous dish. It's a bit like distinguishing between shades of beige or Morrissey songs.
Then there's Sichuan food, where most every dish is dyed crimson, opaquely sauced, and just a little terrifying. It's subtle in the order of, say, early Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine. All you first hear is thick, pulpy waves of sound. Slowly, as the shock subsides, your beleaguered ears start picking out the melodic lines and chord progressions embedded within. Sichuan food isn't bombastically spicy, it's intelligently spicy.
China Village, a one-year-old restaurant on the Albany stretch of Solano Avenue, is a bit of a dream come true for co-owner John Yao. Yao, who has run restaurants in the United States for thirty years, partnered with master chef Siu Jongyi Liu from the Beijing Grand Hotel (the Chinese equivalent of the Waldorf-Astoria) to bring authentic Sichuan food to Albany. Though he has a Chinese-American menu to bring newcomers in, his goal is to slowly lead them to the Sichuan menu. "'Sichuan' used to just mean any dish that was spicy," he says. "This is the real Chinese food."
During the day, China Village serves Mandarin- and Sichuan-style dim sum. At night, the chiles come out to play. Chiles, which came to China from the Americas either across the Silk Road or from Portuguese traders, and their native Chinese equivalent, Sichuan peppercorns, are the foundation of the spiciness that distinguishes Sichuan cooking. But it isn't all hot stuff. "Sichuanese chefs are actually legendary for their ability to create delightful fu he wei -- complex flavors -- which combine all kinds of different tastes," writes Fuchsia Dunlop, author of Land of Plenty.
I first sensed the different qualities of heat when trying the cold dishes. The burn started the moment I put the slice of translucent beef tendon, dripping red oil, to my lips. But it turned out to be a damp brushfire burn, not an inferno-up-the-elevator-shaft burn. Behind the chile was a nuttiness that could have come from the tendon or something toasted. By contrast, the chile oil mixed in with soy and garlic on a stack of cucumber slices was only a transient thing, quick to appear and quick to disappear, chased away by the assertive salt of the soy or quenched by the cucumber.
Then there was the sliced side pork with spicy garlic sauce, a flower with petals of cured pork belly -- read uncured, fatty bacon -- napped in a Korean-tasting sauce. There the chiles only animated the savoriness of the garlic (lots of garlic) and broad-bean paste. And finally the spicy diced rabbit, brined and then roasted. The meat, a little tough and salty, pulsed with layers of chiles, Sichuan peppercorns, and five-spice powder, each appearing in the mouth at different times to create a polyphony of spiciness.
Though I did a fair amount of sweating at China Village, not every dish will send you gasping to the rice pot. As we could see from the other tables, the China Village Special Lamb is one of the restaurant's most popular dishes. It was excellent, tasting more of the Chinese Muslim cuisine of the northwest than it did Sichuan: Lamb, onions, and red and green bell peppers were dry-fried with an Afghan-tasting spice mix redolent of cumin and coriander. Not a whiff of chiles. We tasted bacon again in the Hunan smoked pork with green beans. Salty, crunchy, and more heavily smoked than American bacon, the thinly sliced smoked pork belly still had the rind attached.
The green beans, like the dry-sautéed slender bamboo shoots, were oil-blanched, a common Chinese technique with vegetables and meat. The beans and shoots were deep-fried very quickly, then drained, and stir-fried with the rest of the ingredients. Oil-blanching left the tiny, conical bamboo shoots crunchy, and the vegetables picked up a vegetarian sort of meatiness from a toss in the wok with garlic and dried turnip.
Tea-smoked duck is a Sichuan classic. The roast duck is smoked in the wok, ending up with a thin lacquer of smoke, not as deeply entrenched as the flavor that permeated the Hunan pork. I found China Village's duck a bit overcooked, and though I loved the accompanying half-moon steamed buns that you're supposed to smear with a sugary plum sauce and eat the meat off of, I most appreciated the duck all by itself.
Ruth Lafler, a regular contributor to foodie bulletin board Chowhound.com, recommended I try the poetically named "fire-bursted crispy tripe." (As opposed to its menu counterpart, "fire-bursted tripe.") The tripe we received was absolutely lovely, with the passing chewiness of well-cooked octopus, smooth meat which gives to the teeth with a slight crunch but is anything but rubbery once you start chewing. And the sauce had a slight smokiness to it, followed by a sweet heat.
"Is this the fire-bursted crispy tripe?" I asked the waiter. "Because it doesn't look crispy." He assured me that I had ordered the correct thing. But then he came back later with the menu, whose English translations were a little suspect, and explained that the "fire-bursted tripe," which he had served us, is actually pork stomach, and the "crispy fire-bursted tripe" is beef tripe. If we wanted crispy crispy tripe, he told me, we should come back and order the "dry-fried crispy tripe."
The spicy dishes -- and half of the items have the word "spicy" in the title -- range from the spicy cold noodles with chicken, chewy homemade wheat noodles and shredded chicken mixed in a sweet sesame-paste sauce that glows dimly after a ten-second delay, to the Mandarin fish, a whole deep-fried fish covered in a sweet bean-paste sauce chunky with garlic and ginger and red with -- you guessed it -- chiles. Then there was the spicy tripe and, most pungent of all, Sichuan spicy boiled beef.
"Do you want spicy?" the waiter asked us on my first visit. We nodded noncommittally. "Get this," and he pointed to the Sichuan spicy boiled beef. I took him up on the challenge, and we received a large bowl of murky stew, a good quarter-inch of red oil floating on top. I swirled the soup to clear away the oil and ladled some boiled beef and napa cabbage onto my rice. The fumes from the chiles incinerated my lips as I put the tender braised beef in my mouth, and they sizzled all the way down, leaving the earthier aroma of Sichuan peppercorns in their wake. It required several wedges of crispy, chewy sesame flat bread studded with green onions to recover, then I dashed back into the inferno.
Our waiter had a tendency to steer us toward the most expensive dishes on the menu. "Almost enough food," he declared after we placed our order, so I added another dish, and when the plates started crowding the table I realized we had enough to feed a party of ten. But he was happy to talk to us about unfamiliar dishes, and he kept the water and beer flowing freely. Thank God.
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