13-Dish Introduction to Szechuan at Lan Sheng Szechuan Restaurant

Date November 16, 2009

You didn’t think NYC Food Guy could stay away for this long, did you? I didn’t either, but here we are, more than four months since the last review.  A complete change of schedule at my day job gave me a life beyond eating for the first time in three years and unfortunately the blog suffered.  Big time.  But I’m back for good, so let’s get to the real reason you’re here: My first taste of Szechuan cuisine, Cantonese Chinese food’s bolder, spicier cousin, at newcomer Lan Sheng Szechuan Restaurant on 39th street b/t 5th & 6th Ave. Three people, thirteen dishes and one fiery eating adventure.

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For this meal, my friend Steve invited me to a press dinner during Lan Sheng’s opening weeks.  His friend Robert, a writer and respected Chinese food expert would lead our meal through a constant stream of the chef’s finest dishes.  Since it was so early in the restaurant’s existence, I omitted prices since they may have changed.  Certain aspects of the dishes, particularly regarding presentation, may have changed as well.  If you’re confused, feel free to email me: lawrence@nycfoodguy.com

The Favorites

Whole Lobster prepared Szechuan Style

In most Cantonese restaurants whole lobster is traditionally prepared in a ginger and scallion sauce.  Lan Sheng’s fresh, succulent whole lobster was doused in garlic, anise, numbing Szechuan peppercorns and incendiary Szechuan peppers; shiny, bright red and daring you to bite into one.

Whole Lobster Prepared Szechuan Style

While I mainly avoided the whole peppers, the bits of cloying garlic and peppercorn attached to the big chunks of briny lobster I peeled from the shell, were some of the best bites of Chinese seafood I’ve ever had. The simultaneously fragrant and fiery peppercorns offered a flavor my taste buds had never experienced.  Little did I know, it was just the introduction.

Whole Lobster Prepared Szechuan Style

Ma Po Tofu

The plumes of fragrant steam billowing from this amalgam of tofu, ground pork, leeks, anise and Szechuan peppercorns invaded my nostrils causing little tears to form in the corners of my eyes. Part pleasure, part pain, the tears were a prelude to the revelatory dish of the day.  The combo of fire and fragrance were a credit to the peppercorns and anise, respectively.  At once spicy, numbing and sinus-clearing, I ignored my brain’s fire warning and just kept eating the delicious chunks of tender tofu.  This dish will be a fixture in any future Szechuan meal I eat.

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Dan Dan Noodles

Lan Sheng hit the mark on this classic Szechuan dish.  A chili oil based sauce featuring ground pork, Szechuan peppercorns and baby bok choy rests atop a nest of well-cooked noodles.  Upon mixing it all together, I found myself going back to these noodles until they were almost gone.  The complex flavor and numbing heat reminded me of the Ma Po Tofu.  This is another must order dish at any Szechuan meal.

Dan Dan Noodles

Bird’s Nest Scallops

The halved chunks of wok-cooked scallops in this dish were excellent.  Crispy around the edges and covered in caramelized, spicy black bean sauce; the scallops were addictive and caused us to rummage through the large chunks of pepper to find more bits of juicy seafood.  The large vegetable chunks are deceptively prevalent, there ended up being a lot more scallop in this dish than it appeared at first glance.

Bird's Nest Scallops

Sizzling Mixed Seafood Casserole with Crispy Rice Cake

“Be careful!” shouted our host Dexter as he carefully placed a covered skillet in the center of our crowded table.  The tiny stream of steam sneaking out the top of the dish erupted into a cloud as Dexter removed the cover and poured a brown sauce over the platter creating a splash and loud sizzle, turning heads at other tables and raising our eyebrows at the savory smell.  Fortunately the presentation didn’t trump the dish.  The diverse textures of the juicy shrimp, tender vegetables and sweet, crispy rice were enhanced by a surprise fried egg resting at the bottom of the skillet.  The fresh ingredients and the delicate brown sauce all combined for a flavorful and surprisingly light dish.  Unfortunately, the fried egg cooked all the way through failing to release the textural pleasure of its yolk.

Sizzling Mixed Seafood Casserole with Crunchy Rice Cake

Sizzling Chicken Plate with Spicy Brown Sauce

While engrossed in note-writing with one hand and eating with the other I was surprised to look up and see another sizzling skillet on our table, this one topped with chunks of chicken, sliced green capsicum, thin shards of garlic, and another seemingly superfluous fried egg at the bottom.  Upon first bite, the flavor was undeniably garlic but it was balanced by the lightly sauteed chicken.  As Robert noted, if this dish had some chile peppers and peanuts it wouldn’t be a far cry from the George Costanza favorite Kung Pao Chicken.

Sizzling Chicken Plate with Spicy Brown Sauce

Stir Fried Chicken with Spicy Capsicum

Robert put it best when he called the visual presentation of this dish an “inanimate flame.”  Fortunately, you as the eater, have the power to regulate how much heat you’re willing to endure.  If you avoid the whole chili peppers and the spicy capsicum surrounding the crispy pieces of ginger and cayenne crusted chicken, you’ll encounter heat of a more manageable variety.  I was disappointed by the one-note flavor of this dish.  It lacked the complexity seen in the Ma Po Tofu, the lobster and the Dan Dan noodles.

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Braised Sizzling Whole Fish

I didn’t realize how much of a central role sizzling platters played in Szechuan cuisine until this dish, which featured the most austere presentation of the three we tasted.  The tall silver receptacle more closely resembled an ornate ash tray (inset) than a cauldron filled with bubbling oil and delicious strips of fish clinging delicately to its fatty skin.  This dish was tasty albeit a tad oily.  Based on the conversation Robert had with our host Dexter, Lan Sheng is still tweaking this dish and may change the presentation to something less ostentatious.

Braised Sizzling Whole Fish

Golden and Silver Light Buns with Condensed Milk

We started our meal with a dish that would have made a perfect dessert.  Lan Sheng uses puff pastries instead of Chinese buns to create cakey pockets of dough light enough to complement the decadent, super-sweet condensed milk.  The “golden” and “silver” refer to fried and steamed, respectively.  I enjoyed the fried buns more than the steamed.  Surprising, I’m sure.

Golden and Silver Light Buns with Condensed Milk

Dishes To Pass On Next Time

Cold Spicy Deep Fried Fish

One of the most rewarding aspects of writing this website has been the motivation to try everything that’s put in front of me at a restaurant.  While tiny bones in the narrow strips of cold, fried fish provided a bit of a challenge to extract (most of that took place mid-bite), the overall flavor was pleasingly spicy.  I enjoyed this dish more than I thought I would but won’t return to it next time out.

Cold Spicy Deep Fried Fish

Whole Broccoli in Golden Broth

My sentiments weren’t as rosy for this unfortunately-named dish.  A broth reminiscent of egg drop soup surrounds pieces of well-cooked broccoli.  It was all ladled into small bowls for us to enjoy.  While this would truly make a great dish on a cold winter day, the flavor paled in comparison to most of the other more boldly constructed dishes.

Whole Broccoli in Golden Broth

Dumplings: Whole Shrimp Har Gow & Crabmeat Xiao Long Bao (Shanghai Soup Dumplings)

The dumplings at Lan Sheng are well made and thoughtfully flavored but when it comes to a Szechuan meal, I’m looking for more flavor than you’ll find in the dumpling department.  The whole shrimp dumplings (below) deliver on their name featuring juicy, fresh shrimp in very delicate skins.

Whole Shrimp Dumplings

The crabmeat soup dumplings (not pictured) were equally meaty albeit a little fishier than the shrimp dumplings.  Robert chided me after witnessing me eat my soup dumpling whole.  The proper (and messy) way to eat a soup dumpling is to cradle it in your spoon, bite a tiny hole in the top, and literally suck the soup out of the dumpling until it’s sufficiently drained AND THEN you eat it whole.

Lan Sheng Szechuan Restaurant

60 West 39th Street b/t 5th & 6th Ave (Google Map)
New York, NY 10018
212-575-8899
Free Delivery
Kitchen Closes 9:30PM nightly
BYOB currently, Liquor License on the way

21 Responses to “13-Dish Introduction to Szechuan at Lan Sheng Szechuan Restaurant”

  1. PEPPER said:

    welcome back. i missed you.

  2. Mary I said:

    Yay! So glad you’re back. Great pics & post.

  3. Queen Mother said:

    Glad you’re back! Even though I’m too old for “fiery” fare, today’s photography is elegant and I always enjoy your use of adjectives. Keep on postin’.

  4. Brooklynq said:

    Glad to see you’re back.

  5. FN said:

    Welcome back, Food Guy! Glad to see you’re back and posting.

  6. Superman is Back! - Midtown Lunch said:

    [...] Midtown Lunch’er “Lawrence” (aka NYCFoodGuy) is back after a four month hiatus. Read about his very first experience with Sichuan cuisine… a 13 course, free “press meal… (on 39th btw. [...]

  7. RWordplay said:

    Wonderful, generous review, and an excellent take on the meal we shared together.
    The photographs, to use an unavoidable cliche, add volumes. I think Lan Sheng was the right meal to return to these pages. Look forward to more reviews and more meals together.
    (P.S. Although I’m flattered, I must protest, I’m not really a Chinese food expert, merely a guy who eaten a lot of it and so has a few strong opinions.)

  8. njfoodguy said:

    fg,

    your description of the proper way to eat a soup dumpling made my penis stand tall.

  9. The Marchesa of Mustard said:

    About time. Sheesh. We almost made a trip out to Sripraphai over the weekend and thought of you…and the abandoned site. Now that FoodGuy’s up and running again, and I know you have a relatively high threshold for spicy cuisine, you’re back on the invite list for any upcoming Roosevelt Ave. culinary adventures!

  10. angela said:

    hey there food guy …….looks like your did’nt even skip a beat!! Yeah!!!

  11. Hoss said:

    welcome back!

  12. Phil said:

    OH YES!!! The Food Guy is bbbbbbbback! I can’t even explain to you how happy i was to (for no good reason whatsoever) check this website and see a new post :)

    Anyways, Food Guy, great work as per usual. Please don’t tease us with just this 1 post and then take a 5-month break again! My taste buds wouldn’t be able to handle it!!!!

    - A satisfied Phil

  13. BKfoodGal said:

    Welcome back food guy! You’ve been missed….

  14. Food for Thought said:

    Welcome back!!!
    Delighted to read your tasty review and view the colorful photos.
    Hope more food reviews are on the horizon.
    Keep them coming.

  15. Jessica@FoodMayhem said:

    Hey Lawrence. Glad you’re ok and eating well. Tons of yummy looking stuff. Next time you have Szechuan, don’t miss out on Water Cooked Beef and Red Oil dumplings.

  16. stevenp said:

    Welcome back Lawrence!! I was getting a bit worried about you. ;^) I might have to try this place soon. Dan-dan noodles and ma po tofu are definitely on my go=to list fo0r a while now. Both are tasty and spicy. These versions sound excellent.

  17. Introduction to Malaysian Food at Laut | NYC Food Guy said:

    [...] at the Red Hook Ball Fields were the first epiphany; then came dan-dan noodles and ma po tofu at Lan Sheng Szechuan Chinese food.  But one cuisine I never had was Malaysian.  So when my friend Michael mentioned [...]

  18. Midtown Chinese: Szechuan Mapo Tofu & Chengdu Pork Wontons at Cafe China | NYC Food Guy said:

    [...] discovered Szechuan Chinese food in 2009 during an epic meal at then newly-opened Lan Sheng.  It was an eye-opening experience; the flavors and dishes [...]

  19. Diana said:

    holy crap this looks good!

  20. mly said:

    Your enticing review goes back to 11/09. My husband was taken to lunch there about e months ago by an editor @ China Daily, most of whose staff eats there several times a week. As you might imagine, the food was remarkable. He always wanted to go back, so about 4 weeks ago, the two of us (weigoren both) wandered in on a quiet Sunday afternoon. Don’t think for a minute that meant we’d be served in a timely fashion. Ordered the soup dumplings and then had to ask three times for spoons. Instead, different waiters kept rushing over offering forks and once even a knife! Must have thought we wanted to slice up the dumplings. Having worked in China for three years, we’re pretty proficient with chopsticks and actually know something about Chinese food. Ordered Ma Po Dofu which wasn’t spicy at all. Turns out that without asking us, the waiter told the kitchen to tamp down on the spice, I suppose because we’re not Chinese. Now we’ve got a group of 8 to take out and they want good Chinese food in midtown. Your review tempts me to try Lan Sheng again. But then you were part of a press dinner. Have you been back on your own since your initial review? Do you think we have any chance of getting a good Chinese meal, given that we’re all weigoren. Worse yet, we’ll be there on a Monday night

  21. The NYC Food Guy said:

    @mly,

    I have not been to Lan Sheng since my original visit and I don’t even know if they have the same chef anymore.

    I have tried many different Szechuan restaurants over the last few months and the one I keep coming back to is Legend on 7th Ave and 15th Street. The mapo tofu, sauteed chinese broccoli and white fish with Napa cabbage and hot chile are all excellent. Good service and atmosphere too and karaoke downstairs.

    If you want an exciting Asian meal and are open to Thai, head down to Zabb Elee in the East Village. It’s one of my favorite new places in the hood. You can see my review here: http://nycfoodguy.com/2012/06/18/zabeleethai/

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