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
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.
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.