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New fire in Sichuan food range

Spice Spirit (Ma La You Huo) is considered one of the most popular purveyors of authentic Sichuan-style cuisine, famous for its hot dishes, fresh ingredients and comfortable dining environment. With over a dozen outlets in Beijing, it has now brought its unique style to open two restaurants in Shanghai.

The city seems to have increased its enthusiasm for the spicy Sichuan style, with restaurants proliferating like mushrooms. Long queues regularly gather outside some of the most popular, like South Beauty, Yu Xin Sichuan Dish and Xin Xiang Hui, each with their own specialties and loyal patrons.

And now Spice Spirit, among many other popular Sichuan restaurants like Hai Di Lao and Chi Ku that ventured from Beijing, has joined the throng with branches in Cloud Nine Shopping Mall in Changning District and in Westgate Mall in downtown Jing'an District which opened last month.

As a big fan of any delicious spicy food and an old customer of Spice Spirit in Beijing, I ventured to Westgate Mall on the restaurant's opening day to try food that I have missed so much.

The familiar decor of the restaurant reminded me of good dining experiences in Beijing. Also using red and black as its main colors, the restaurant on first sight just sings out an invitation to try a steak and red wine. And the heavy smell of chili and pepper, as well as the zealous and friendly waiter with a Beijing accent, authenticates the lineage of the restaurant which has brought its staff from the capital.

The menu, however, has a lot of changes compared to what is served in Beijing. Here, they categorize dishes according to Sichuan cuisine's different cooking methods, like Kung Pao, Yu Si Liang, Super Mar-Boh and Pickled Pepper.

They also use Western ingredients, resulting in an East-meets-West outcome, which, to a tried and true fan, is really weird.

Kung Pao Beef Ribs with Tropical Fruit Salad (88 yuan), Kung Pao Snowflake Beef with Preserved Plum (246 yuan), Mar-Boh Codfish (126 yuan) and Mar-Boh Pan-Fried Goose Liver with Mushroom (158 yuan) are all expensive dishes with Western ingredients and traditional Sichuan sauces.

But, you order a medium rare steak and they give you Kung Pao sauce instead of the black pepper one! What will it taste like? I didn't have the courage to try, preferring the real thing and I'd rather recommend some of the restaurant's signature, traditional and really delicious Sichuan food.

A safe strategy is to stick with a dish bearing the name "Spice Spirit," like Spice Spirit Hot Frog (68 yuan small/98 yuan big) and the Spicy Pot.

There are six kinds of Spicy Pot which vary with ingredients. Potato, lettuce and lotus root serve as the common base for all and you then choose what main ingredients to add from the pick of vegetable, crab, chicken wings, sleeve-fish or spareribs. Spice levels can also be adjusted to taste.

We chose Crab Spicy Pot (108 yuan/500g) and ratcheted up the taste to the hottest. It was a very impressive dish, not only in color but also its heavy flavor. Sixty species of chili out of a possible 1,000 have been chosen to strengthen the flavor, giving a complex feeling of spiciness and inducing perspiration.

All the ingredients are fried before being mixed together which enables them to deeply absorb the spices, resulting in a rich collision of pepper, garlic and shallots. Ordering a cup of the restaurant's Special Plum Syrup (12 yuan a cup /38 yuan a draft) is smart to quell the hot chili and minimize tongue paralysis.

The boiled fish with chili and numbing hot peppers (Jin Pai Shui Zhu Yu, 66-88 yuan/500 grams) is another must try, offering five different options -- organic grass carp (caoyu), catfish (nianyu), snake head fish (heiyu), jiangtuan fish and longsnout fish. These can be the basis for tailoring a meal to your liking, adding various vegetables -- lettuce, mushroom, cucumber, potato or lotus root -- and spices to suit personal taste.

We still prefer the traditional grass carp, but the slightly firmer and less slippery snake head fish makes a nice change. Some people consider the fish too oily but I think its tender flesh and saltiness works so well with a little hot spice that you overlook the oil. Actually, the whole flavor of this dish is dominated more by peppers than chili. Also, the waiter will provide bread, not to eat, but to absorb the extra oil on the fish and vegetables.

Spicy Spirit Assorted Beef Tripe and Duck Blood in Chili Sauce (38 small/48 medium/68 big) is another recommended dish. I think the secret of Spice Spirit's success is that each dish has an individual spicy taste, something not common as is reflected with Indian food's sometime sameness.

For the beef dish, the materials' freshness were evident and were further enhanced by the sauce.

It is sensible to order something light to balance the spice, such as the Cold Celery (18 yuan), crisp celery sticks with a little salt, Fruit Salad (28 yuan), seasonal fruits mixed with mayonnaise and Honey Glazed Tomato (16 yuan), small peeled tomato pickled in honey and chilled before being served. Cold, sweet, simple but tasty.

The servings are large and adequate for a party of family or friends and the value is good.

Dishes in the pictures:

1. Jin Pai Shui Zhu Yu

2. Cold Celery

3. Crab Spicy Pot

4. Spicy Spirit Assorted Beef Tripe and Duck Blood in Chili Sauce


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