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January 31, 2010

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Hot tastes delight

Eating authentic Chinese food in a pleasant environment is never an easy endeavor in Shanghai. One often leaves crowded and loud restaurants covered in the flavors of the evening, ears bursting and regretting missing out on the best deal because the waiter tried to sell you the most expensive dishes.

If you want to enjoy authentic Sichuan food -- a challenge in Shanghai in a comfortable atmosphere without screaming at each other -- follow me to Pin Chuan for an experience your taste buds won't forget. The restaurant is idealy located on Taojiang Road, opposite the US Consulate and near some well-known city dining spots.

The restaurant is hidden in a beautiful, comfortable old mansion with tasteful decor. Tables are not crowded and it allows for dining intimacy, also not common in Shanghai. Furthermore, the high ceilings and a good air conditioning system allow for most of the food flavors to be extracted from the dining room.

But back to the food. Of course, Sichuan is famous for it's strong pepper flavors and spicy food. However, the Sichuan chefs who are looking over the kitchen at Pin Chuan remember that not everybody's stomach can sustain the biting heat of their local red delicacies. So, they take into account the simple, but often overlooked concept, that milder spices can also mean more delicate flavors and a delight for the taste buds.

We started the cold courses with Sichuan Fern Noodles Salad (19 yuan/US$2.78), a mildly spiced dish of long noodles swimming in the chef's secret, fragrantly sour and spicy sauce.

Next was Sichuan Dry Beancurd (19 yuan) which is a delight to the eyes before it even reaches your mouth. The different layers of beancurd pressed together and marinated allow for the sauce to make what looks like an intriguing labyrinth. The tone is definitely set for a refreshing dining experience.

My chopsticks were still picking the last bits of noodles when my favorite arrived, what I consider the benchmark of a good Sichuan restaurant, the Shredded Beef (59 yuan). A very spicy mix of thinly sliced, dry beef strips is cooked in both shredded red peppers and Sichuan peppers with thin celery stalks to add some contrast.

It is one of those dishes that sets your mouth on fire and makes you forget you ever had lips. It looks simple and unfortunately it's typically the kind of dish that disappoints you nine times out of 10. Not "dry" enough for the meat is a classic complaint.

I've had this dish many times in many restaurants and this is the best in Shanghai so far. Spice lovers, give it a shot, you won't be disappointed.

Spicy element

The next treat is the Cod Fish (179 yuan). Here the chef uses uncooked, sliced fresh pepper so the spicy element doesn't penetrate the delicate fish flesh any more than slightly. The only thing about this dish is that it's a little oily, and it very likely would be more enjoyable with less used.

The final favorite Sichuan delicacy is the Shredded Beef in Hot Stone (89 yuan). Certain foods qualify as comfort foods and this dish is one of them for me. It is as much a delight to the eyes as it is to the mouth.

Very hot stones, smooth and polished, are thrown into oil together with the thin slices of beef, spices and bunches of fresh Sichuan peppers. The spice flavors slowly spread around the boiling hot oil and diffuse to be absorbed into the meat cooking in this fragrant pot.

The scents liberated through this cooking method are very unique. Here again, it's a bit oily, but I'm a sincere advocate that in food, no oil equals no joy. So a little bit once in a while is good.

After these mouth-watering-and-numbing courses, I decided to indulge with glutinous dumplings with egg white and rice wine (15 yuan). In the winter it warms up the body and, after such a meal, it also helps with the digestion. If you don't know what I'm talking about, rush to Pin Chuan and try. One thing is for sure, this is an experience you won't forget.


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