Dainty Sichuan Noodle Express
DINERS NO LONGER exclusively associate Chinese food with the milder palate of Cantonese cuisine, saving room on the table for punchier tastes and stranger textures from regions like Sichuan, Shaanxi and Hunan. Sichuan food enthusiasts can’t get enough of the unmistakable flavour of Sichuan peppercorns. Dishes spiked with the stuff impart a prickly, numbing sensation at the tail end of each bite. And now it’s even easier to get your fix thanks to Dainty Sichuan, an efficiently buzzy noodle house in World Square that has opened as a fastcasual edition of the beloved Melbourne restaurant of the same name. Here they specialise in Chongqing (a subregion of Sichuan) spicy noodles, the foundation of which is a dark, aromatic, chicken-based broth topped with an unapologetically thick layer of chilli oil. Compared to other celebrated noodle soups like pho or ramen, it’s a confronting bowl of firetruck red, but well worth the risk to your freshly pressed whites. As they’re picked up, thin, firm wheat noodles get a final slick of spice from the chilli oil, making each bite incredibly flavourful without the need to spoon in extra soup (only the deranged would drink this stuff). Soft braised beef chunks are generously portioned, although we find ourselves missing the green respite of menu-picture-promised baby bok choy, forgotten from our bowl. If you don’t feel like sweating through your shirt before afternoon meetings, there are milder options that still provide flavour thrills. Fillings in the chicken soup wontons are vaguely meaty but the skins are so silky they could almost slip down without requiring chewing, if not for the sour crunch of pickled mustard greens. More involved are noodles topped with stewed pork trotters, which force you to get neanderthal – gloves provided. Noodle bowls may be the main event, but it’s the snacky sides that bring the party. Order the vegetarian skewers and receive a vase of cold chilli broth from which you unsheath sticks of bite-sized, crunchy cauliflower and wood ear mushroom; bouncy tofu; and soft-boiled quail eggs, which have absorbed their marinade to the core. It feels odd to be eating cold dishes that pack so much heat. Despite all those angrylooking chilli symbols on the menu, nothing is furiously spicy – it’s a simmering heat that creeps up gently but never boils over to bonafide agony. Dainty is fast, cheap (a feast for two would barely crack $40) and there’s nary a disappointing bite to be had.