04 August, 2008

Szechuan Tokyo, West Hartford CT

Two years ago, I went to Szechuan Tokyo for dinner with friends and fucking hated it. A small jazz band was scheduled to perform that day and we made the mistake of thinking it would be an enjoyable experience. The goddamned band had their amps cranked up as far as they'd go and we were deafened by the volume. It was so loud it was impossible to talk to one another; the music even thundered oppressively in the rest rooms. We ate our food and left, and I swore I'd never go back there again.

Last week, though, I found myself in West Hartford again with a different bunch of friends and after discussing our lunch options, we decided to give Szechuan Tokyo another try - on the condition that there'd be no live music.

It turned out to be as pleasant as we'd hoped.

Szechuan Tokyo squats on the corner of New Britain Avenue and South Main Street in the Elmwood section of West Hartford. The funky little white building is a bit run-down but comfortable on the inside, kind of homey and casual and festooned with bits of red-paper-and-gold-foil cheap Asian gift shop decorations. It was a hot afternoon, and our waiter appeared immediately with glasses of icewater and menus; throughout lunch, he was always prompt and available and maintained an excellent level of service. Our party of five decided to order a number of predominately Szechuan appetizers and share them around; that turned out to be a fine idea.

Here, then, in no particular order, is what we had:

Shumai dumplings are a particular favorite of my daughter. Szechuan Tokyo's version were competently prepared if somewhat unexceptional; we agreed that they were probably pre-made and frozen, though we really couldn't tell if they were made on the premises during off-hours or brought in from a commissary.

Ma la rabbit was authentically Szechuan, salty and hot. Plenty of Szechuan peppercorns gave the bony little bunny cubes fire to spare, and there were notes of garlic, scallions, sesame oil, and ginger - though perhaps not enough garlic or sesame oil for some in our party. Honestly, it was a little hard for me to tell because the Szechuan peppercorns kind of seared my tastebuds.

My daughter Lynn was quite pleased with her yakisoba with chicken, though it was more Chinese in style than Japanese. I particularly enjoyed the smoky flavor that permeated the dish and which is lent by extremely high-temperature cooking in an old, well-seasoned wok, though it has been pointed out to me that this comes from not scouring the wok often enough. If losing that elusively wonderful seared smoked flavor is the price for scrubbing the wok clean, however, I hope the kitchen continues to neglect the steel wool for a good long time.

Unquestionably, the star of the meal was Stewed Pork Belly with Pickled Vegetable. About half a pound of lovely slow-cooked pork belly, sliced and arranged on a bed of quite delicious but rather unidentifiable preserved vegetable (we think it was not the standard cabbage, but may have been kale.) The dish was trimmed with a ring of tender steamed baby bok choi halves. Absolutely wonderful.

My wife Maryanne ordered scallion pancakes (no photo, sorry.) They were flaky and crisp outside, chewy inside and studded with loads of scallions, but they were exceptionally oily - could have used a little more draining time before being served - and she and Lynn decided that although these were good, my homemade scallion pancakes were better.

Of course, any time a number of things are ordered there are bound to be a few disappointments, and this time was no exception. Ants Climbing Trees, for example, was completely different than the puffed rice and ground pork we were expecting; what arrived was rice noodles simmered in what my friend Michael described as "a murky soy and hot pepper broth" with bits of scallions and meat burbling about. ("The dish should have been called Ants Drowning in the Amazon Rainforest After a Flash Flood," he said.)

Soup dumplings were another letdown. We were told when we ordered them that they took an additional 20 minutes to prepare; as the rest of our meal arrived, the waiter apologetically told us that the dumplings would be out "soon" and another twenty minutes or more went by before they finally arrived. Unfortunately, they weren't really worth the wait. Instead of the slurpy burst of hot broth we expected when we bit into them, we got a chunk of moist and flavorful, but not soup-dumplingy, ground pork. The dough was too thick and bready and had perhaps absorbed the broth before we could get to them.

For the most part, however, our experience was overwhelmingly positive; the food was quite authentic and delicious and we didn't have to scream at one another over an annoyingly loud band. I'd certainly go again.

But never - never - on a live music night.

Click here for Szechuan Tokyo's website.

Michael Loo
contributed to this article.

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