By now there are so many real Sichuan restaurants on Long Island, intrepid diners have a good idea of what regional specialties they'll find on the menu, among them: mapo tofu, wontons in chili oil, dandan noodles and braised or stewed fish.
The newly opened Sichuan Garden in East Setauket already has a superlative mapo tofu. This homestyle dish, invented in Sichuan but popular all over China, always includes cubes of tofu, fermented bean sauce, chilies and ground pork. Here, the cubes are big and fluffy, and lightly veiled in a sauce all of whose components, especially the beans, come through with sharp clarity.
While large parties might partake in whole braised fish, served a-sizzle in a huge, shallow pan, even the stew fish turned out to be enough for six. The enormous bowl was filled to the brim with anopaque broth, soured with pickled vegetables and barely concealed fat shards of tender fish. The broth had been liberally seasoned with the Sichuan peppercorns that confer the signature Sichuan “mala,” a fragrant, slightly camphor-like flavor that numbs and tingles the mouth. Bunches of green (fresh) Sichuan peppercorns floated in the soup, lending their own fresh note.
Neither Sichuan Garden’s wontons nor the dandan noodles are at the same level, but a “wild card” dish of yam noodles with sliced cabbage is a winner, and a mellow counterpoint to all the spicier dishes.
Credit for the restaurant’s early promise goes to Young Zhao and partner Kevin Lin. Born in Sichuan, Zhao was previously the chef at Flushing’s Daxi Sichuan. Lin has longer history on Long Island: The Stony Brook resident owns Ichi Sushi & Ramen, 500 feet east of Sichuan Garden. “My customers encouraged me to open an authentic Chinese restaurant,” he said. “And they are already supporting it.”
Although he was born in Fujian, he loves Sichuan cooking and was determined to open “a traditional-style Sichuan restaurant — not American.” (There are a handful of Chinese American dishes on the menu — General Tso’s chicken, beef with broccoli among them — but they are only available at lunch from Monday to Saturday.)
Sichuan Garden takes over the free-standing building that was the short-lived Sichuan hot-pot specialist Xiao Si Chuan. It’s an attractive little eatery with lots of parking.
Sichuan Garden, 736 Rte. 25A, East Setauket, 631-888-3622, sichuangarden736.com. Open Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.