Friday, April 1, 2016

Dine at the Fourth Sister's

I was talking to some friends about Sichuan cuisine earlier when the name Sijie came up. That's when I realized it's been a long while since we last set foot in this speakeasy-style restaurant in Causeway Bay just a couple blocks away from Times Square. Over the years the restaurant has undergone significant changes since we first visited their original location more than 5 years ago at a hole-in-the-wall place inside an old commercial/residential building in Wanchai. Though the price has gone up quite a bit after all the upgraded décor at a more central, modern location, the food has been consistently good and it remained our favorite Sichuan restaurant in town, so we decided to go back for dinner with my parents one weekday evening.

The menu offered a wide variety of dishes, about 80% hot and spicy and all of them Sichuan specialty dishes. I am not sure whether they have toned down the spiciness to suit local taste or not, but since I can’t handle something super super hot anyway, that’s something I didn’t mind at all. They charge a fixed price per person, and you can pick a certain number of dishes (both cold appetizers and hot dishes) based on the number of people in the party. Faced with too many choices we wanted to try after a long absence, we ended up ordering more than we were "allowed" to (and paid extra for that extra dish).

And we are happy to report that their food was just as good as we remembered. We started with their signature Sichuan cold noodles, one of the items we order every single time. The bouncy cold noodles were covered with chili sauce, green onions and a soy-vinegar dressing underneath. It’s spicy, full of flavors but not burning hot, pushing me just right to the edge without the need to reach for water. It was such a simple dish but properly cooked to perfection, and served in generous portion. I personally thought the spiced beef and tripes was a tad bit salty to have on its own, but again, it’s well seasoned, daringly spicy and went well with a bowl of rice.

After the three cold appetizers (the other one being the steamed chicken with chili sauce), the five hot dishes arrived in sequence. At first glance the sliced eel and sautéed frog looked almost identical, with chunks of meat deep-fried in oil and served with abundant chilies in all types and shapes and forms. But both were slightly different in taste. The sliced eel was stir-fried with pickled peppers, green onions and bean sprouts was the less spicy one, with more meat and earthy flavor; while the sautéed frog was loaded with Sichuan peppers giving me numbness in the tongue with a crunchier texture of the deep-fried frog.

In comparison, even though the Kung Pao chicken was listed as one of the spicy dishes, it was surprisingly timid – more sweet than hot. It’s good to have something less spicy to balance it out a little bit. Same with the Ma-Po Tofu – it was spicy but also on the sweet side.

Of course, our favorite was the chili-oil poached fish, another dish that we always order. One might be taken aback with the presentation – with chunks of fish fillet "swimming" in a large bowl of red-hot chili oil with chopped chilies floating on top. But it’s not as spicy as one would think, as long as you stayed away from "drinking" the oil. The chunks of perch fillet was silky smooth and soft, with the complex but subtle spicy flavors well-infused into the meat, and underneath was the flat jelly noodles which I thought was a bit too oily and chewy. But overall the dish was excellent.

It seems like they have been bringing out bonus dish for everyone towards the end of the meal. We ended ours with a plate of sautéed Chinese lettuce with garlic. We don’t know whether it’s because of all the spicy food we had earlier which may have sensitized our tastebuds, this veggie dish was very delicious with distinctive good, fresh taste.

Pairing red-hot spicy food with wines always creates a challenge but I decided to go for a Chardonnay from Piedmont, something we brought along. I thought it matched well with the rich, rounded body and good acidity standing up well to the heavy Sichuan dishes with complex flavors.

It seemed like the owner, whom everyone called Sijie (which mean the fourth sister in Chinese), no longer work day-in, day-out inside the kitchen these days, but still made the round in the front of the house talking and drinking with some of the regular customers. Her presence just lifted up the atmosphere of the place, giving you that sense of comfort like eating at a friend’s home, enjoying all the top-notch casual dishes that came out of the kitchen.

When? March 7 2016
Where? Sijie Sichuan Restaurant 四姐川菜, 10/F Bartlock Centre, 3 Yiu Wah Street, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Signature Sichuan Cold Noodles, Chili-oil Poached Fish in Chongqing style
Drinks? 2013 Gaja Langhe Rossj-Bass

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