Sunday, February 14, 2010

Casual Stereotyping at Lan Sheng, or Can a White Guy Get Some Real Szechuan Food?

In just the past couple months, Manhattan’s Szechuan options have exploded with a string of new restaurants specializing in this increasingly popular cuisine opening lately (there are also many cast-offs from the dying Wu Liang Ye chain). I decided to check out Lan Sheng, which debuted late last year, just down the street from the two-starred Szechuan Gourmet (what’s the Chinese word for chutzpah?)

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.

Lan Sheng
60 West 39 Street (btwn 5th and 6th)
(212) 575-8899

Lan Sheng on Urbanspoon


  1. I would not only have complained, but demanded to see the manager and returned the dish unfinished. While a chef will sometimes change ingredients to suit his purposes, this has even happened to me at Shun Lee, the customer is always right. My response would have been, as it always is, to reject the dish outright.

    Recently I ordered a dish of Ma Po Tofu at the remaining and still excellent Wu Liang Ye and the usually milky smooth tofu had a bitter tinge. I took a second bite, called Herman, the manager,over and told him, something was wrong. He asked what? I explained and he immediately replaced it without a moment's hesitation. The second dish was perfect. As for the dish from your picture—the take out carton—one can see from the large tasteless sweet red peppers and white onion—ingredients added not for taste but to fill up a plate—it is apparent that the Chef and wait staff played you for a chump.

    As for the waiter's prevarication, it was unforgivable. But I think you should have been more militant. It's our task as customers to call him on it—we owe this to other diners. The waiter and manger knew what they're doing and this is not the way a restaurant should be run. (Perhaps the second or third Chef was cooking and didn't know what he was doing.)

    In closing, I had an excellent dinner Friday night at Szechuan Gourmet and will continue to eat there. As for Lan Sheng, should I return, I will pay particularly close attention to my order, and what's more, I will not recommend the joint until I've a chance to sample again.

  2. Thanks for the post RWordplay.

    In retrospect, I should have brought it up with the younger waiters (who were fluent) and sent it back.

    I definitely got the Sunday team in the kitchen though, because the lamb dish they served me was bland and boring.

  3. It's really sad that instead of wanting to promote or share their local cuisine... hey opt to serve something you can get at a take out for 1/2 the price... but then one in there might even be from Szechuan ... so they can't even tell the difference? =/

  4. I went to Lan Sheng tonight, after reading your blog post. And I decided to order that same lamb dish, curious about what I'd get. What I got didn't quite fit the menu description, but it also wasn't the bland stir-fry that you describe. It was definitely lamb---quite good, tender, with a touch of gaminess. And there were pickled vegetables, in particular many pickled red chili peppers. But in place of celery they seem to have substituted lots of dull raw bell peppers. I enjoyed it overall---I ate the whole thing---but since I'm not a bell-pepper fan I would have preferred the celery.

  5. Thanks for the comments. Anon., glad to see you got (at least partially) the right dish. I would have liked to have some pickled vegetables and chilis in mine.

  6. @and this blog: I tend to agree with you. Most of the pockets of Chinese people in New York City tend to be from Fujan and Canton. At least in the Brooklyn (Sunset Park) and Chinatown areas. May be different in Flushing where more of the people seem to be from Northern Provinces but I suspect this situation may be the result of the wild popularity of Szechuan food among White people and the Chinese community taking advantage of that to make a quick buck.

  7. This place is close to my office, and I've been there four times now. I haven't ordered the lamb, but I have had the dan dan, the ma po tofu (several times), pork belly, several fish dishes, and two chicken dishes (i go with others, and we share). The first time we went, the spices seemed a little too tame. Since then, we just ask for the full chinese heat and spice. It's done the trick.

  8. Yeah, I'm sure I got the third stringers. Next time is for real.

  9. I don't think it's a big deal. Just tell them before hand you want the decent authentic dish with full flavor of spiciness. Cos sometimes they got blamed by some white customers that the dishes are too hot and make them sick. Really hard to satisfy everyone tho.

  10. Anon, I agree and I always ask. I was a little out of it that day, so probably wasn't as firm as I could have been. Either way, I've found that this isn't always helpful, as the waiters seem to give you authentic flavors only if you order "properly." This was definitely the case for me at Wa Jeal, a Sichuan restaurant on the Upper East side last week. The waiter beamed at me after I ordered the first app and was in love with us the rest of the meal.

    I did go back to Lan Sheng for a second meal. It was significantly better (I think I wrote it up on Chowhound).