Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Dainty Sichuan is Pretty...Spicy

Have you ever eaten a Sichuan peppercorn? It's not a thing of heat. Crush one on your tongue and expect a bitter, anise-y, peppery evolving sensation that will leave your taste buds literally tingling for minutes, and then you'll want more. Our table of seven at Dainty Sichuan last week ended up trading peppercorns, quails eggs, Chinese sausages and rice sticks like drugs.

When we walked off of rainy Bourke St. into the arcade that houses Dainty on the 2nd level, Charlie and I felt like we walked back into Hong Kong. With several restaurants and a karaoke bar, this arcade rivals any of shopping center that we entered in HK in April. Dainty opened their location here only recently after already cultivating a cult following at their location in South Yarra, and on a Friday night this kitted out spot was definitely doing a good business. I had never had Sichuan food before and didn't quite know what to expect, so we let Brad take the reins to order hot pot and a ton of ingredients to cook in it for the table.
Luckily, a vegetarian friend was with us to help get some veg in. She ordered a dish of pickled vegetables and a dish of barely stir fried potatoes. Both were delicious -- the pickled veg, although I only got a little taste, (gotta leave some veg for the vegetarian!) was fresh and kept a nice crunch although doused in vinegar. The potatoes also retained an al dente texture, as they're literally barely tossed around over a flame before being served. Really nice, with just a little bit of spicy heat in there.
Besides the hot pot, I also made sure we got an order of smoked pork with scallion pancake for the table. Thin strips of streaky bacon were tossed up with red and green chillies, scallions and strips of scallion pancake. The pancake pieces got a bit of a nice browned crust to them and the ham was delicious. It was a hit with everyone. The main dishes at Dainty are quite expensive -- this was $28 -- so it really is best to go with a big group and pass everything around.
To order toppings for the hot pot, a checklist goes around the table with a multitude of options. We ordered more than one serving of almost each topping we got, including frozen pork, spicy beef strips, chinese sausage, scallions, tofu, rice sticks, potato noodles, quail eggs, enoki mushrooms, sliced lotus root, shitake mushrooms and another kind of mushroom -- who can remember, seriously. So much food. We each also got a portion of rice, thankfully, and we got a few dipping sauces like a garlicky soy sauce and xo sauce. 

When you order, you specify how spicy you want the pot to be. We went with just a little spicy, so our pot was half spicy and half not. The spicy side was full of peppercorns and diced red chillies, all floating around in a molten lava oil concoction. The other side had gogi berries and tomatoes for flavor.
You're meant to wait for the pot to heat up to a boil, and then start adding ingredients. We went with meats first, under Brad's instruction that each addition adds to the overall flavor of the pot. If you add too much at once the pot loses heat, and cooking times multiply, so do be patient and savor the experience. After the pork, beef and sausage got some color, we kind of just tossed in a bunch of everything else.
My favorite bits were definitely the sweet and firm Chinese sausage, (good thing we ordered three servings, great suggestion Katie!) the quail eggs with a yolk that burst when bitten into and the silver looking potato noodles that kept a nice al dente texture after cooked and had a beautiful, translucent color. I liked the rice sticks too, although after hoarding a bunch of those I started to fill up quick. Fast forward, like, 30 minutes and our greasy, oil splattered table was surrounded by food coma victims in an alcohol and spicy food stupor. 

I really didn't find the pot super spicy. I mean it definitely had a kick that left me, at moments, looking for rice and water, but overall I guess I expected it to be hotter. I think upon return I'd take a step up on the heat scale. 

Dainty Sichuan takes a lot of abuse on Urbanspoon. Reviewers complain that servers pretend not to speak English and that bills often have extra dishes added in. We definitely experienced the language barrier, but besides that, there were really no complaints about the service, or the food. My advice is to just know what you're getting into. The restaurant is beautifully designed and has high prices to match, but ultimately, you're in for a down and dirty Chinatown experience. Oh, and only bring wine. BYO beer isn't allowed. (That was communicated very clearly.)

Dainty Sichuan: 206 Bourke St., Level 2, Melbourne, Vic. 03 9650 2188 Dainty Sichuan Food on Urbanspoon


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