Nothing swizzles your serotonin like Sichuan food: seared string beans with minced pork-chilli-garlic. Nubbins of crisp chicken tossed with dried chilli-peanut-ginger-garlic. A fish scored and deep-fried like an Outback Bloomin’ Onion in sweet-and-sour sauce. Cuke salad. Potstickers. So on.
So delicious! But so predictable. Where are the Sichuan innovators? Innovation is the unlisted ingredient in the truly great culinary accomplishments, from vichyssoise, to potato chips, to Thomas Keller’s oysters with tapioca. Without innovation, restaurants, like people, must surely decline. Rare is the Sichuan restaurant that utilises this ingredient. Sichuan Lab does.
Their rendition of duck breast and leg would be as likely on any other Sichuan menu as mac ‘n’ cheese. Cooked sous vide (a French technique you’ve never before seen applied to Asian cuisine) at 52 degrees Celsius (a temperature clearly designated by the Almighty), it’s sublime. The duck is served mid-point between medium and medium rare, an ideal rarely achieved. It is remarkably ducky, tender, moist, slightly salty and, for an added layer of bliss, perfumed by smoke (that you suspect comes from tea leaves). The lacquered skin isn’t crisp, but it doesn’t matter because it’s so flavourful. Cleverly served on hot stones, with accompanying steamed buns, it is memorable, equal in its way to the seraphic duck breast you’ve had at Amber (aglow from its binary stars).
Sichuan Lab’s clear noodles in their Sichuan-style tossed clear noodles with spicy sauce are house made. Although countless HK restaurants make fresh wheat noodles, and Chua Lam’s Pho makes thrilling rice noodles, you know of no other restaurant that makes their own clear noodles. You dearly love clear noodles for their gelatinous chewiness, which is akin to gummy worms (which you also love). You’re pretty certain these are made from mung bean starch (others are made from sweet potato starch), and they are chubbier than any you’ve had before, so there’s more chewy, gelatinous goodness. The noodles are lapped by a wonderful chilli sauce that not only delivers the heat of chilli but also the flavour.
Their spiced local pork in garlic and soy sauce is crowned by a large topknot of fresh minced garlic. It is unabashed, as though to say, if you don’t like it, tough noogies. It is what it is – deal with it. In other words, this dish has moxie, which you, like any New York boy, approve of. The only other place you’ve seen garlic served like this is at rustic Ah Chun Shandong Dumpling. You wish the sauce itself was equally brash – spicier, saltier, sourer. Still, you like the way Sichuan Lab is willing to go both high and low in their quest for the best.
Sautéed eggplant with minced pork in a chilli garlic sauce is somewhat pallid. More saltiness and spice would energise the dish. And you wish the eggplant had more sear or had been deep-fried in batter or crumbs. The dish is a bit of a mush, and your palate seeks a crisp textural element as a contrast and flavour enhancer. Slices of water chestnut might also help to deliver this.
You feel the same regarding their dan dan noodles, which need to be feistier. Your tongue forlornly seeks more capsaicin, soy, vinegar and sesame.
Kung pao chicken and ma po bean curd with minced beef are merely good, though you appreciate the tang of Sichuan peppercorn in each, often absent elsewhere. They would be greater yet, in your view, if they’d used fresh Sichuan green peppercorn, which is what the archangels eat at Sichuan restaurants in heaven. The kung pao would have been greater if the chicken had been crisped.
Your party orders three desserts. First is a scoop of house-made vanilla ice cream flavoured with Sichuan green peppercorn. Certainly, cinnamon blends well with vanilla ice cream, as do clove, cardamom and nutmeg. You highly doubt that mustard, fennel or caraway do. And Sichuan peppercorn, even green ones, don’t. It’s like that ubiquitous cliché, a margarita with chilli (which happens to be on their drink menu). Margaritas will still be with us in 10 years. You are confident though that Darwinian forces will have extinguished the chilli.
Their crème brûlée is based on soy milk, which gets an “A” for novelty, but that’s all. A great crème brûlée has a large surface area of satisfying burnt sugar compared to the volume of custard. This one, deeper than it is wide, does not. Moreover, soy milk totally lacks the rich, satisfying mouthfeel that comes from an egg custard or even a panna cotta made with cream.
Okinawa brown sugar glutinous rice cakes are shaped like piano keys, deep-fried, served hot in a splotch of brown sugar sauce. You like their chewiness and crispness. However, you feel the dish needs one more major contrasting element. A flavoured ice cream – chestnut! – would be great. Keep the brown sugar sauce, but add a tot of rum or brandy or bourbon (or maybe Maotai!) and let the customer pour it from a small pitcher. Or, pour it over and ignite! There’s nothing so elegant as blue flames in a darkened restaurant.
Sichuan Lab’s drink menu is aspirational, much like the drink menus you find at most expat troughs in SoHo. There are the usual 10-ingredient cocktails and mocktails, all expensive, even at happy hour. There are expensive wines, though it’s questionable in your mind if any wines at all go with Sichuan food. And there are upscale beers you’ve never heard of from Spain, Belgium, Germany. You only wish they had Tsingtao, a beer that should not be dismissed, shaped by sociocultural forces to go with Sichuan food. In other words, the drink menu needs modest drinks at modest prices, not just strange concoctions for well-heeled expats with tattoos on their ankles. It’s an auxiliary revenue unit, hardly more.
The interior is dim, and much of the furniture is orange, which you’d think, being the colour of Donald Trump’s complexion, would induce dread, but, in fact, works elegantly. The night you visited, you were quite early and were the only customers. The service was fine, if slightly distracted. The food is plated with particular beauty using a florist’s shop of flower blossoms and baby greens.
Two of their dishes were stellar, the others a bit meek, perhaps for fear of offending tender palates. Given Sichuan Lab’s willingness to lob a mortar shell of fresh garlic on the cold pork dish, this perplexes you. You want them to jack the voltage. Perhaps you’re habituated to too much voltage and the fault is yours.
Sichuan Lab is expensive, but considering what they deliver, not unreasonably so. A blowout, gluttonous meal for four, including a number of dishes not listed above as well as drinks and service charge, came to about HK$2,400. Had sanity prevailed, it would have been less than half that price. Menu items at Little Chilli in North Point, your go-to Sichuan restaurant, are about half the price. But they don’t have the duck. And their clear noodle dish, while good, has less torque.
You admire how many of Sichuan Lab’s dishes that don’t light you up – notably the desserts – are still innovative. Sichuan Lab doesn’t bunt. Frankly, most of their food, while good, does not lift you into orbit. But you’ll eagerly return just for the sous-vide duck and their house-made clear noodles, which do. Only the most knowledgeable kitchen, helmed by a serious chef, could produce these dishes. And you have a hunch there are other hidden gems on their menu, perhaps some of the following, which you hope to try on your next visit: crispy paper-thin beef slices, crispy chicken dices with dried chilli and Sichuan peppercorn, braised spicy Chilean sea bass balls with broad bean paste, tossed chilled handmade noodles with pork slices in spicy garlic soy sauce.
Chocolate Lab. Yellow Lab. Chesapeake Lab. If you knew no better, you might say that Sichuan Lab was a new category of Labrador Retriever. That’s okay. For, while it isn’t there yet, it has all the makings of a top dog.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Overall value: 3.5
G/F, Lodgewood by L’hotel Wanchai, 28 Tai Wo Street, Wanchai, 3126 6633
In order to review objectively, David Greenberg does not solicit or accept comped meals and anonymously reviews restaurants.