There was no mistaking the Sichuan origins of the chef's special fish stew ($18.95) at Sichuan Home, a two-month-old restaurant on Geary. Fish fillets and bean sprouts bobbed on the surface of a slick of crimson broth, and several seconds after plucking the first one out, it became clear that the color provided insufficient warning. The stew generated a brash, scouring heat that clung to the most delicate parts of my mouth until I'd exhausted both my Tsingtao and my bowl of rice cooling them down. But once I began to taste past the pain — the point at which Sichuan food always hooks me — a grassy, oceanic undertone emerged, an intriguing note I'd never tasted before in the inland cuisine. I poked around the broth to see where it came from, and up floated strips of kombu seaweed.
Sichuan Home's English name gives the first-time visitor the impression that she'll be sweating away to grandma's country cooking, but its food is hardly homey. Watch the dishes passing by and you'll spot pastry cups, hollowed-out pumpkins, and baskets used as serving vessels, and there are a number of sauces tinted a magenta rarely encountered in country kitchens.
The restaurant's chef, Liu Hong, is trained in Chengdu-style cooking, and you can find traditional dishes like couple's delight and water-boiled fish that show the chef's classical training as clearly as the Rose Period Picassos hanging in MOMA's Stein exhibit. But the core of Sichuan Home's menu is its "Sichuan new style food," amalgamating influences from all over China, Thailand, and America.
The results of the chef's experimentation could be scattershot, and at times downright odd. Szechuan [sic] fish ($10.95), presented in a lattice basket, was showered in coins of many colors — saffron-colored rice crisps as well as cross-slices of green and red chiles. It was gorgeous, and fried so long that we could barely tease out tough clumps of meat from the minuscule bones radiating through each slice. In the chef's special combo mix ($10.95), he deep-fried taro threads with matchstick-thin slivers of lotus root, chives, pine nuts and bitter-almond-tasting apricot kernels: all dry and crunchy, more a drinking snack than a vegetable side dish. For his nen yow in special sauce ($10.95), he pressed thin slices of lacy lotus root around ground pork, battered the sandwiches, and deep-fried them. Not only was the crunchy root still raw and the frying oil two days too old, the disks were doused in a lipstick-red syrup whose sweetness clashed with the seasoned meat.
But the risks could pay off, too. Deep-fried rolls ($10.95) filled with shredded cloud ear fungus, fish, and vegetables appeared to be wrapped loosely in lace, a brittle web of starch that disintegrated upon contact — a texture as marvelous as its appearance. For his spicy tea-smoked duck ($10.95), the chef smoked brined meat until the skin took on an obsidian sheen, then chopped it up and stir-fried it with red and green chiles. Vegetal chile heat segued into smoke, which gave way to the broad succulence of duck.
I went to Sichuan Home three times over the course of the past month, encountering on each visit more people clustering in the doorway of the tiny, wood-paneled room. The big tables were occupied by families sharing Sichuan hot pot, though the families weren't big enough, so another party was asked to fill in the rest of the seats. Two mirrors running the length of the room faced each other, and the reverberating, Escher-like reflections turned the crowd into a mob.
All the cold plates were phenomenal, starting with the complimentary cabbage and celery pickles, glossed with red oil, that start every meal. Sichuan Home's couple's delight ($7.95) — thin slices of brisket and frill-edged, tender tripe dressed in chile oil, cilantro leaves, and peanuts — was one of the best versions of the dish I've yet tasted. The garlic marinade coating beveled chunks of cucumber ($4.95) was beautifully balanced. And satin-fleshed Szechuan-style [sic] chicken ($7.95) was coated in a toasted chile oil with a fruity, none-too-fervid heat.
The chef's take on the classic boiled fish fillet in spicy sauce ($10.95) wasn't the most traditional. As with most of his food, he omitted Sichuan peppercorns, with their electric grapefruit aromas and buzzy, Novocaine-like effect on lips and tongue. But all the bold contrasts that make the dish so good were in place: the white-fleshed fish covered in bright-red oil; the fish's melting flesh and the fresh crunch of cabbage leaves; the oily heat of the sauce, garlic rumbling underneath the burn, interrupted by the floral sparkle of fresh cilantro. While much of Sichuan Home's "new style food" comes off as the first draft of an fascinating new book, the simple dishes showed what the chef could do when he polishes up his sentences.