25-5 Cuttermill Rd., Great Neck, 516-874-5228, kitchenmelody.com
SERVICE: Friendly and accommodating, but language can be a barrier
AMBIENCE: Dainty jewel box
ESSENTIALS: Open Wednesday to Monday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; dining room is wheelchair accessible but restroom is not; municipal lot around the corner on Gussack Plaza
Subdued. Meditative. Elegant. These are not adjectives most Long Islanders ascribe to Chinese restaurants in general and Sichuan restaurants in particular. But Kitchen Melody, which was opened late last year in Great Neck by chef James Yang and his wife, Lisa Liu, is just that. It’s a fitting setting in which to enjoy a regional cuisine that is about much more than palate-searing spice.
As soon as you enter the tiny dining room, you sense an air of refinement. The double-height space is bright but muted — sky blue walls and white woodwork, celadon china, plush chairs upholstered in gray and plum, tabletops of glossy marble. The menu is charming, too: one sheet, printed front and back, with fewer than 70 items, most of them from Sichuan province.
There’s no Chinese-American padding on that menu, no wonton soup or beef with broccoli, but there’s plenty to satisfy every taste. You can’t miss the first item on the menu, fresh quarry fillet with pickled mustard soup. I mean, you literally can’t miss it: it comes in a shallow bowl that’s nearly 2 feet across, and every time I’ve been to Kitchen Melody, some table is sharing it. After an exhaustive but fruitless search to translate “quarry fish,” I’m guessing that it refers to “grass carp,” a fresh-water fish widely cultivated in China and, because Sichuan is landlocked, a common lead player in seafood dishes.
The fillets, boneless and firm, float in a savory, slightly sour broth enriched with the fish’s head and bones (subsequently removed). Then come the garnishes: pickled mustard greens, delicate white mushrooms, wedges of tiny cucumbers, fresh cilantro and, depending on how spicy you like it, brilliant red chilies. Like many Sichuan dishes, the soup is also seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns, which contribute a slightly numbing tingle.
Other soups I tried at Kitchen Melody were hit or miss. On one visit, the sauteed tomato with egg noodle soup was so comforting, it took me back to a Sichuan childhood I never had. On another occasion, the subtlety turned to blandness. Bland also described both minced pork noodle soups, sampled once with peanuts, another time with pickled cowpeas.
Sichuan cuisine is known for its wide array of cold appetizers, and here’s where you find various innards (tripe, tendon, ears) bathed in chili sauce, if that’s your thing. (It’s mine.) For those seeking more traditional “meat,” I’ll recommend the diced rabbit with chili sauce and peanuts, which is full of bones, but this makes it even more fun to eat. (Opt for the same dish made with chicken if tiny bones aren’t your thing.)
Two famous Sichuan mains were splendidly rendered here: Eggplant with minced meat (pork) and garlic sauce made a striking presentation in a low-sided round white bowl whose three handles were smiling figurines “holding” the bowl in their arms. The dish itself features lush lengths of amethyst-colored eggplant matched, jewel-tone for jewel-tone, by ruby chilies and emerald scallions. At the other end of the beauty spectrum was the minced pork with vermicelli, a brown mass of ground meat clinging to gelatinous bean-thread noodles. Nevertheless, The Chinese know this dish as “ants climbing up a tree,” and I’m urging you to give it a try: By the third bite you’ll wonder how you lived without its weirdly satisfying mouthfeel and pure porkiness.
I couldn’t have been more surprised to encounter what looked like a thoroughly “on-trend” rice bowl at Kitchen Melody, but it turned out to be the Taiwanese classic braised pork on rice, wherein tender, star anise-scented cubes of pork are heaped onto a bowl of white rice along with fresh bok choy, preserved mustard greens and a halved boiled egg. I could eat this for lunch every day for the rest of my life.
Another Taiwanese dish expertly rendered here was the famous “three cup chicken” (here called chicken with basil and soy sauce), whose sauce — made, the story goes, with a cup each of soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil — is cooked slowly with bone-in chicken parts until it penetrates the succulent meat and clings to the surface. This was another stunning presentation, served in the white smiling-figurines bowl and garnished lavishly with basil.
Neither of these dishes were terribly spicy, and if you’re visiting Kitchen Melody with “mixed company” (folks who like spicy and folks who don’t), another pleasing choice is sauteed beef with scallion and ginger, whose slices of beef were exquisitely tender. Service at Kitchen Melody is friendly and responsive, though I’ve been here when there didn’t seem to be any English speakers working. On each occasion, though, Chinese-speaking customers rose to the challenge of helping me order. Using my phone’s “Google Lens” app to translate the Chinese characters on the menu also worked like a charm.