Photo from Joe DiStefano, Serious Eats.
Criticism has been lobbed at SG’s dan dan noodles, which are most certainly watery and weak. I read the positive reviews of Lan Sheng’s version on Chowhound (despite it’s ubiquity this is one of my favorite Szechuan dishes), so there was no doubt I was getting some dan dan noodles. Also piquing my interest was Bob Martinez’s description of a dish called Sautéed Sliced Lamb with Sichuan Pickles & Celery (for $16.95), as the best one he ate at his meal. It turns out that the dish they were served was not on the menu (it was a cumin preparation).
Not the lamb dish I was served. Photo courtesy of Dave Cook, Eating in Translation.
I reached Lan Sheng for a late afternoon Sunday lunch. The room is long and pale, with very soft lighting. It felt separated from the outside, with a trailer parked out front blocking the street view. Olympic ski-jumping played on a flat screen near the door, and each waiter's attention would casually wander towards the screen as the skiers started their jumps. The restaurant was quiet and nearly empty when I first arrived, but five more groups sat down while I ate. My waiter was a younger guy who was fluent in English. After he took my order of dan dan noodles and the lamb dish, I asked him to recommend a vegetable side. He suggested the eggplant with garlic sauce.
My dan dan noodles arrived first. They were as good as advertised, and probably the best version I’ve had in Manhattan, not much to say that hasn’t been said before, but this is the only dish I finished. The eggplant arrived next. I’ve had a cold sliced eggplant preparation before, which was what I expected, but the eggplant came out in chunks, burning hot from the wok. I dug this dish a lot, it was very good with lots of flavor.
I eagerly anticipated the lamb dish, but as my waiter placed the dish before me (and scurried off), I realized that the dish I was served most certainly did not have Sichuan pickles or celery. It was actually indistinguishable from dishes I’ve eaten at any Americanized Chinese joint in town. It was basically a lamb stir-fry with way too much corn-starch. I tasted absolutely no gaminess in the lamb, which could just as easily been beef (I’m actually pretty sure it was beef). My waiter never returned. I think he was ashamed.
I politely raised the issue with the older head waiter, who spoke very little English (or more than he let on). Our first conversation went pretty much like this:
Me: “Excuse me, I don’t think this is the right dish, I don’t see any Sichuan pickles or celery, just green peppers, asparagus and onions.”
Him: “Yes sometimes the chef… takes liberties… uses different things.” As I tried to demur, the owner walked over to take a vacationing family’s order of fried rice, spring rolls and kung pao chicken.
Since I was sitting in the middle of the room, the waiter was forced to face me again as he swung back around the room. Returning, he said: “You know Wendy’s, McDonalds… sometimes they have different things…specials…” Smiling, he trailed off.
I have no idea what the point of his strained metaphor was, since the ethos of an international fast food chain is clearly uniformity, compared to the regional Chinese specialties I was attempting to order. Plus, I was eating in this restaurant because I didn’t want any fucking Wendy’s, I wanted the Real Stuff. He again insisted that, yes I had ordered Sautéed Sliced Lamb with Sichuan Pickles & Celery, because it was in fact, written down on the waiter’s pad. Obviously he failed to see my point. Now I’m a laid-back guy, so knowing the waiter was bullshitting me I decided to go with the flow, since, at this point I just wanted to leave and take my terrible lamb dish with me. He returned with the bill, and indicated to me that yes, he had in fact charged me for the lamb dish I had ordered (but again, not actually been served).
I’m not someone who gets deeply offended and refuses to go back to a restaurant (it takes something egregious for that to happen), but the stereotyping was apparent, they’d tried to swap a Sichuan dish for a generic stir fry, hoping I wouldn’t notice. And even when I did notice, he still acted like nothing was wrong. It’s one thing to switch up the ingredients, but there was absolutely nothing Sichuan about that dish. I could easily have been told the lamb was unavailable and asked if I wanted a different dish, as there were about 100 dishes I would have gladly eaten before this one.
But I’m not even that offended that I was served the wrong dish, I’m more irked by the fact that the waiter or chef decided not to substitute my order with an authentic dish, instead serving me a bland and uninspired stir-fry. The attitude seemed to be that I would prefer the Americanized dish. Interestingly, this does not happen to me in Flushing, where people seem to assume that a white guy all the way out there has actually come for the Good Stuff. Maybe I should have brought a camera, as they would have pegged me as a blogger and perhaps served me something more inspired. I had hope that Chinese restaurant proprietors have come to the realization that (many) American taste buds have matured to the point where they prefer authentic flavors, yet at Lan Sheng I guess that this is not the case. I wish that the waiter would at least be pushing the Szechuan dishes, not necessarily exclusively, but there are many accessible dishes that almost anyone would enjoy (such as the Chonqing Chicken, or “that chicken dish with a ton of peppers” that the ladies at the table next to me demanded).
Either way, I learned my lesson, and although I may go back for the delicious dan dan noodles, the wealth of Szechuan food in the area will probably keep me from returning to Lan Sheng for quite a while.
I took my leftovers and headed back up Fifth Avenue. I popped in to Café Zaiya on the way back to my apartment for a yakimochi, which was served by a Jewish guy behind the counter, very authentic indeed.
60 West 39 Street (btwn 5th and 6th)