Dainty Sichuan @ 176 Toorak Road, South Yarra
13 January 2011
Specialising in Sichuan cuisine, Dainty Sichuan has earned the respect of many chilli enthusiasts with its intemperate use of hot chillis and tongue-numbing Sichuan peppers. Intrigued by its evident popularity, we recently paid it a visit.
Unfortunately, we found that while the spicy dishes at Dainty Sichuan are undeniably packed with chilli heat, they are severely one dimensional in flavour. The philosophy underlying any dining establishment is usually reflected in, and thus can be understood from, the dishes it offers. In Dainty Sichuan’s case, its dishes suggest an adherence to the principle of “quantity over quality”.
We began with a gargantuan serve of Chongqing chilli chicken. A close inspection revealed the true composition of the dish – roughly one half dried chilli and one half chicken wing off cuts which were parsimoniously lacking in meat. The chicken bones were flavoured with a mélange of chilli and Sichuan pepper which heated the mouth and prickled the tongue respectively but which sadly failed to provide any tangible flavour depth. A mound of chilli-laced skeletal fragments does not, in my opinion, justify a $25 price tag.
Similarly crippled by the use of substandard primary ingredients and one dimensional flavours was the dish of cumin lamb slices. While the chilli and Sichuan peppers provided adequate kick, the tough pieces of lamb were sodden with oil, over seasoned with cumin, under seasoned with salt and disappointingly, completely devoid of any other flavours. Even the visually promising mix of spring onions, red onions, coriander and sesame seeds failed to enhance the dish, functioning merely as side garnishes.
Duck tongues, a Chinese delicacy, are amazingly plump morsels of fatty skin which, when appropriately flavoured, are simply irresistible. Dainty Sichuan’s liberal serve of duck tongues on the other hand was seasoned with presumably only chilli oil and Sichuan pepper. This resulted in a blend of flavours that inexplicably lacked punch and that was, much to my disappointment, completely uninspiring.
In stark contrast to the preceding dishes, the less chilli centric dish of fish flavoured eggplant was thoroughly enjoyable. It was a well conceived dish that took full advantage of the eggplant’s most notable characteristic – its supple flesh. The thick pieces of eggplant were encrusted with a pickled chilli, sweet and sour sauce that was beautifully caramelised to develop a toffee-like outer shell. Encased within that shell was creamy eggplant flesh that melted in the mouth in a manner similar to unctuous pork fat. Although vegetarian dishes are often easily dismissed, this particular gem is one that commands respect.
While our meal finished on a bright note, the mediocrity of the earlier dishes had certainly not been forgotten. Based on our limited sampling and with the exception of the eggplant dish, Dainty Sichuan is, for the most part, a lame one trick pony. Its dishes are heavily laced with chilli but severely lacking in finesse and complexity. Still, if tolerating such failings is the price of admission, the eggplant dish alone makes the whole experience worthwhile.