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February 03, 2012

San Xi Lou

Ma Po Dofu Dominic Armato

It wasn't my intention to save the best for last, but I'm pretty much okay with it working out that way.

With work out of the way, we had a half a day free before taking off for Japan. Most of that day was spent chasing down an ingredient that I'm starting to think is a cruel hoax on obsessive food nerds. But there was time to get in one more restaurant visit, and the tricky part was deciding which. A little weekend dim sum? A trip to Lei Yue Mun for piles of shrimp and clams? Something particularly difficult to locate back home, like Chiuchow? In the end, despite my guilt over eschewing Cantonese on our last day in Hong Kong, one of my favorites food niches won out. I love Sichuan. I've only grown to love it more since the last time I was in China. Being many years separated from my old Chicago favorite had put me badly in need of a good fix, my last Sichuan meal in Hong Kong had been such a wonderful experience, and by god, I would have some facing heaven chiles. Decision made. Off to San Xi Lou.

Cold Chicken with PeanutsDominic Armato

I'd read about San Xi Lou in a few places, and it's routinely praised as perhaps the best Sichuan restaurant in Hong Kong. It's tough to ignore praise like that, and the fact that it was just a few minutes' cab ride from the hotel made it an easy call. As with many restaurants in Hong Kong, it's located in what looks like an office building. A dozen stories, small footprint... it seems odd to find a restaurant in a place like this. You hop off the elevator on the seventh floor, and all but step directly into the restaurant, stylishly and comfortably appointed in warm tones and dark, carved wood. This is as approachable as dining overseas comes, with helpful staff and a lengthy, detailed English menu heavy on pictures. Hotpot is a specialty, and while the huge sauce bar (are you taking notes, Tien Wong?) was tempting, I was on a mission. I ordered way too much food. And I'm really, really glad I did.

Cold Sliced Pork with Garlic SauceDominic Armato

A couple of cold appetizers were an absolute necessity, and we started with a chicken with peanuts, and oh, what a fabulous start. No surprised here, with chilled meat swimming in a bath of chile oil fortified with sesame oil, balanced with vinegar and spiked with Sichuan pepper. Cold and spicy is always such a wonderful combination, and this one was mostly about the fire, with the sesame coming in second. But with these Sichuan dishes, the beauty is in the balance, and this was exceptional. Next, the chilled pork arrived, pale white, tender as can be, sliced almost paper thin with as much fat as meat, it was dressed with a splash of a sort of spicy soy and a dollop of garlic sauce that -- in a weird bit of cross-cultural similarity -- reminded me an awful lot of skordalia. It had a whipped texture, almost creamy, and though it had a very strong garlic flavor, its acrid edge had been tamed just enough that it yielded to the clean, simple flavor of the meat. Another fabulous dish. Two for two.

Chongqing ChickenDominic Armato

Can I give three points for this next one? Wow. Just wow. The Chongqing Chicken, listed on the menu as sautéed chicken with spicy red chile, is a familiar presentation, fried bits of chicken buried in a mound of toasted whole chiles, mixed with copious amounts of Sichuan pepper and cashews. This is the kind of dish that makes me reconsider my overuse of the word explosive, because you could combine the firepower of five other dishes I've described that way and it wouldn't match this dish. I mean, there's ma la and there's MA LA. The chicken was dry, dusted with salt and Sichuan pepper -- a LOT of it -- and upon contacting my tongue, my mouth was set ablaze, first with the fire of the chiles, and then with the electric, numbing zing of the Sichuan pepper. This isn't just burn, it's something else altogether. It's like an intensely powerful full mouth convulsion that just builds and builds, more fire, more zing, as you eat another piece and more of the oil coats your tongue. At first we thought the dual vessel, a woven basket placed atop a plate, was little more than a stylish presentation, to convey abundance. But as we worked our way through the dish, sifting through chiles in search of little bits of chicken, we noticed that the whole Sichuan pepper was dropping through and leaving the rest behind. Was this by design? In any case, this contributed to a surprising twist. Once it had cooled, it was like a completely different dish. That shocking electric sensation had been dialed down from 14 (waaaaaay beyond eleven) to a more reasonable and typical eight, and the underlying aromatics came out. It wasn't better or worse, just different, and we effectively got to enjoy this dish twice.

Sauteed Prawn with Chili & PeanutsDominic Armato

A little seafood was up next, a perfect example of how the same core ingredients can be re-balanced and adjusted to create a dish with a completely different character -- one of the things that's always amazed me about expertly prepared Sichuan. Here, sweet and sour came to the fore, though not at all in the manner those words might suggest to some. The predominant flavor was the deep, smoky tartness of chinkiang vinegar, balanced with a fair amount of sugar and accented with chiles and onions. The shrimp themselves had a lovely, velvety texture, and they were brimming with natural sweetness. Again, the balance on this was just impeccable, and even though this dish was quite fiery in its own right, on the tail of the chicken, it played like a cooling, soothing refresher of a dish... perhaps the only context in which a dish loaded with so many chiles could.

EggplantDominic Armato

I had a tough time settling on a vegetable, but man, am I glad we ended up with the eggplant. The flavor was spectacular, but it was as much about the texture, shooting the gap between firm and tender, resisting a touch at first before yielding and dissolving in your mouth, having fully absorbed the vinegar, chile oil -- oh, geez, I have no idea what the litany of ingredients were, but the flavor was amazing. And then before calling it quits, we moved on to the ma po dofu, which played as remarkably mellow in comparison to the rest of the menu. Silky tofu studded with ground pork, it had a deep, round, earthy quality brought on by an abundance of fermented black beans. I always love getting a kitchen's spin on ma po dofu, and San Xi Lou's was the perfect distillation of their style -- flavors coming from every direction, all expertly balanced.

Yes, please.Dominic Armato

It's perhaps an unorthodox addition to the tabletop, but a bamboo box filled with tissues is, I have to admit, a thoughtful touch. Almost indispensable, really. We kind of sat in awe for a while. I can't say enough about this meal. I really can't. It's the kind of meal that I worry is going to completely ruin me for Sichuan for years to come. It's set an impossible standard that I have no way of matching. We had some fabulous meals on this trip to China, but even though we were in the heart of Cantonese territory, this is the one I just can't get out of my head. And knowing that I have no place to go for Sichuan of this caliber is driving me insane. I we were to stay for another week, I might have hit the place two more times, and gotten as much of the massive menu as I could. As we waddled out of San Xi Lou, we actually had time to take a little break, chill for a bit, and squeeze in one more stop before heading to the airport. I had tentatively planned a sojourn to Lei Yue Mun to round out the trip. But I don't care if it isn't thematically congruent... we opted to rest on our laurels. You don't mess with an ending like this. It was an absolutely killer finish to our time in China.

And there was more to come...

San Xi Lou
7/F Coda Plaza
51 Garden Road
Central, Hong Kong
Mon - Sun11 AM - 11 PM


With so many beautiful plates, where do you begin? Wow!

Nice. I share your love of this regional cuisine. I also like the similar Hunan cuisine, in part because I grew up next to a hard core Hunan restaurant.

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