DIN­ING IN THE LAP OF MERCEDES LUX­URY

If you can take your eyes off those fine cars for a while, some fine food awaits you

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE | FOOD - By DONG FANGYU dong­fangyu@chi­nadaily.com.cn

It is not un­com­mon to hear that a fash­ion re­tailer has opened a cafe or a res­tau­rant to add to its store, and here you can think of Burberry, Gucci, Ar­mani, Ralph Lau­ren, to name only a few. Find­ing a place to sit down and en­joy food at a florist’s or at a book­store is not ex­actly new ei­ther. Cross­over eater­ies with dif­fer­ent themes emerge one after an­other. But hear­ing that the out­fit that is serv­ing mouth-numb­ing spicy Sichuan food is none other than the Ger­man car­maker MercedesBenz, you could be ex­cused for do­ing a dou­ble take.

Si Fang San Chuan is on the sec­ond floor of the newly opened Mercedes Me in Bei­jing, a MercedesBenz dis­play cen­ter in which you can see car and gallery shows and ex­pe­ri­ence the taste de­lights of four sig­na­ture food and bev­er­age out­lets in­clud­ing SFSC.

Since open­ing, the res­tau­rant, with its back­drop of swish cars re­plete with fine Ger­man en­gi­neer­ing, seems to have at­tracted a lot of peo­ple who are no doubt ex­pect­ing it to be a lit­tle dif­fer­ent to the run-ofthe-mill res­tau­rant.

With that kind of in­quis­i­tive­ness and ex­pec­ta­tion we went there at lunchtime. But be­fore deal­ing with that, I should say some­thing about the res­tau­rant’s name, con­sist­ing of four sim­ple Chi­nese char­ac­ters, si, fang, san and chuan.

Si Fang rep­re­sents the “four squares” — Yun­nan, Guizhou, Sichuan and Chongqing — that his­tor­i­cally de­fine the an­cient terra of South­west China; San Chuan refers to the “three rivers” the Wei, the Jing, and the Luo, an­cient water­ways that mark the ori­gin of the realm of the “four squares”, and bred Chi­nese civ­i­liza­tion as early as the Three King­doms Pe­riod (AD 220-280).

So the name car­ries a cul­tural and Si­no­log­i­cal con­no­ta­tion and im­plies the cui­sine of South­west China it has to of­fer. In fact, Sichuan cui­sine makes up about 70 per­cent of the menu at SFSC, the rest be­ing the cui­sine of Yun­nan and Guizhou.

SFSC’s in­te­rior decor is eye-catch­ing, with hang­ing Chi­nese lanterns shaped like hot-air bal­loons hov­er­ing over each table in the spa­cious main din­ing room, the light given off be­ing a warm, mel­low hue.

We tried sev­eral of the best sell­ers: Sichuan cold noo­dles with shred­ded chicken in chili sauce, and fresh wal­nut with Sichuan pep­per­corn sauce as starters, and sauteed chicken with chilies and Sichuan pep­per­corns. All of th­ese are mildly spicy, re­flect­ing SFSC’s cook­ing phi­los­o­phy — less salt and less oil, a shift from tra­di­tional Sichuan cui­sine that tends to be heavy in fla­vors un­der­pinned by the co­pi­ous use of oil and chilies.

One dish that will no doubt cap­ti­vate most din­ers is poached fish in Sichuan pep­per oil, also called Sanchuan fish, pre­pared by the head chef, Song Tingjie, who has been in the trade for 25 years.

Think of the two clas­sic fish dishes Guizhou poached fish in sour soup and Sichuan boiled fish in hot chili oil, and you will find Sanchuan fish is some­how a com­bi­na­tion of the two, but is some­how a brand-new taste sen­sa­tion. Amorsel of the freshwater bass fil­lets may be mild, but as you eat more, the tin­gling numb­ing sen­sa­tion of Sichuan pep­per­corns will grad­u­ally fill your month. Spicy is not the melody, but a sat­is­fy­ing numb­ing of the taste buds is the beat that this dish pro­duces.

Un­der the ten­der fil­lets lies the translu­cent cel­lo­phane noo­dles made from starch. They taste sweet, sour, a lit­tle spicy and have a slip­pery tex­ture, sim­i­lar to the Sichuan street food suan la fen (sour and hot noo­dles). As with the numb­ing fish, you will ex­pe­ri­ence lay­ers of fla­vors un­fold­ing in your mouth.

If the numb­ing Sanchuan fish does not suit your palate, go with an­other much milder and smooth­ing soupy dish that we also love, Dali’s rice noo­dle in sour fish broth, which is very mor­eish. The broth is boiled with pre-fried fish bone till it turns creamy white. It then be­comes the base for which rice noo­dles, fresh bass flesh and veg­eta­bles in­clud­ing straw mush­room, pick­led mus­tard green, Yun­nan big co­rian­der and Guang­dong flow­er­ing cab­bage are stewed. The dish is very light in salt, while sa­vory, and could strictly be a won­der­ful sta­ple in it­self in the ab­sence of other or­ders.

Chef Song says his fa­vorite dish is crispy shrimp balls with green mus­tard and lime dress­ing. King prawns are in­cred­i­bly bouncy, wrapped with var­i­ous kinds of fla­vors thanks to the sweet­ness and creami­ness of the may­on­naise, the sour­ness of the lime and a spicy touch from the green mus­tard.

Even though SFSC bills it­self as a spe­cial­ist in food from South­west­ern Chi­nese, its dim sum side menu is a must. We tried only the jade skinned shrimp dumplings with mat­su­take mush­rooms, and crab roe, porcini shao­mai, and were im­pressed by their highly elas­tic skin and sub­stan­tial fill­ings.

Dim sum lovers should try the un­lim­ited dim sum flows at 138 yuan a per­son dur­ing the lunch hour, some­thing I can hardly wait to do.

PHO­TOS BY DONG FANGYU / CHINA DAILY

Clock­wise from top: Sauteed chicken with chilies and Sichuan pep­per­corns; Sanchuan fish — poached fish in Sichuan pep­per oil; grilled as­sorted mush­rooms and veg­eta­bles wrapped in ba­nana leaf and stir-fried spare-ribs in lemon­grass herb and gar­lic sauce; as­sorted dim sum: jade-skinned shrimp dumpling with mat­su­take mush­rooms, steamed pork and mush­room xi­ao­long­bao, and scal­lops, truf­fle dumpling.

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