1395 2nd Ave (2nd Ave. & 73rd St.)
City: NYC citywide, NY
Phone: (212) 737-1838
Area: East 70s
In the winter of 2010, when Szechuan Chalet opened, The New York Times raved and I raced over to give it a try. Since then, it morphed into Szechuan Gourmet and, while the cooking isn't nearly as rave-worthy as its earlier incarnation, it's still pretty good. The place does a booming takeout business and usually draws a pretty good-sized crowd at lunch and dinner--it's a place to bring the kids, grandma or anyone in between, particularly if someone likes it hot. The place is probably suffering because of the mess the Second Avenue subway has made of the area but even so, delivery guys zoom in and out and eaters stay and dive in.
The room is reasonably attractive with nicely folded dark yellow cloth napkins perched on plates, the obligatory scrolls and paintings and a bar at the front. The bar is now strictly ornamental as the place as turned BYOB which is nice on the wallet (although it's not super-expensive regardless). I was told that a new liquor license is in the offing.
Staff is friendly and helpful although not every waiter speaks good English; however, if frustration arises, another staffer will cheerfully help you decipher the specials. Without being asked, waiters clear plates from messy appetizers before delivering clean plates and bringing on the mains. Among the appetizers, the various dumplings are fine although they would benefit from a slightly thinner dough and the Dan Dan noodles with chili-minced pork could use more pork. I've never tried the Hot Mund Bean Jello with spicy sauce but the spicy cucumber salad and sliced beef tendon with a spicy dressing hit the right notes. There is a menu section called "Gourmet Gourmet" with plenty of ultra-hot dishes in the Szechuan tradition like beef filet with cabbage and chili; tofu with chili minced pork (the same stuff as in the Dan Dan but more of it) and smoky chicken with chili described as "wok- tossed."
If you're super-spicy, tell the waiter who will first raise incredulous eyebrows but make note and deliver. If you like whole fish, those offered reflect variations in the cooking--served with chili, Szechuan chili-miso or ginger and scallion although other kinds of fish turn up as specials. The vegetable dishes are the usual drill with seasonal items like riffs on asparagus when in season and a good eggplant typically with garlic sauce but served with brown sauce instead. I love their lo-mein, greasy though it may be, that can be ordered with vegetables.
Szechuan Gourmet is open seven days a week, handy for when pangs for spice hit. Lunch, from 11:30 am until 3:30 pm on weekdays is a bargain with an entree that comes with hot and sour or wonton soup and rice and includes dishes like crisp duck in a spicy, garlicky sauce, Ma Po tofu with pork and, for the spice-avoiders, tofu with shrimp and pork with eggplant.
Despite its pedestrian look, definitely impacted by the subway situation, Szechuan Gourmet is among the best Chinese restaurants on the UES.
Review By: Mari Gold