Warming to the chilli

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 July, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 July, 1999, 12:00am

SICHUANESE cuisine is defined by its liberal use of chilli and pepper, in everything from the starters to hotpots. And there was plenty of both in our food when we visited the simply named Sichuan Restaurant in Causeway Bay.

It was not very busy on the weekday night we were there but that might be due to its being tucked away on the fifth floor of the Island Shopping Centre next to Sogo - The New Face. There are very few signs that hint at its existence, and the billboard on the outside of the building is rather unattractive.

The interior of the restaurant, however, was more luxurious than expected. The only things that jarred with the decor were the gaudy red tablecloths with huge peony prints and the red lanterns which made us feel we were attending a wedding reception. However, the restaurant was comfortable and comparatively quiet.

The waitresses - from the mainland, judging by their Cantonese accents - were pleasant, polite and honest. On an earlier visit, one waitress had advised against a certain dish and recommended another. On this one, our waitress told us to stick with one crab instead of the two we wanted because we had already ordered four other dishes plus noodles.

One of the more popular dishes at the restaurant is the diced chicken with chilli ($88). There was more dried chilli than chicken, but the meat was actually less spicy than it looked. The dish was not too oily but the chicken was slightly crunchy and would have gone well with rice.

However, we had opted for the dan dan noodles ($28) and bean jelly cooked in northern Sichuan style ($30). The dan dan noodles were some of the best I have tasted in Hong Kong. It was rich in flavour but not overly spicy. The bean jelly, which came tossed with a chilli sauce and chopped nuts, was also delicious.

To break the monotony of spice, spice and more spice, we ordered the ox tripe with mashed garlic and sesame oil ($58) which was tender, garlicky and flavourful, and a refreshing contrast to everything else.

The sauteed meat with fermented rice juice ($98) also helped stabilise the taste buds. The meat was slightly fatty but finely sliced so it went down easily. The 'rice juice' tasted like a light rice wine which lent a sweetness to the meat.

The deep-fried green chilli ($58) looked absolutely daunting but appearances again proved to be deceptive. The green chillis had been sliced and the seeds removed, hence taking away the mind-blowing, tongue-numbing spicy taste that we expected. In fact the green chilli carried a hint of sweetness.

The crab fried with salted yolk - a fair price at $108 - was disappointing if only because we expected it to be something like the Shanghainese dried fried crab with yolk.

The Sichuanese version was slightly watered down, with only a sparse sprinkling of salted egg yolk, probably best for the cholesterol count, but the crab meat could have done with more flavour.

We decided to be adventurous with the dessert, opting for the mashed walnut meat with egg white ($28) which looked the most enticing in the menu, and the Chinese assorted dessert ($28).

However, the mashed walnut meat bombed. The lukewarm sweet walnut clashed terribly with the salty egg white, leaving a funny taste in the mouth. The Chinese assorted dessert was more traditional - mashed lotus seed mixed with a little dried fruit and other indiscernible ingredients.

Despite our two disappointments, the four of us had a pretty decent meal for about $700. It is nice to know there is more to dining in Causeway Bay than Times Square and Lee Theatre Plaza.

Sichuan Restaurant, 5/F Island Shopping Centre, 1 Great George Street, Causeway Bay, Tel: 2881 1669, Open: 11.30am-2.30pm, 5.30pm-11pm