July 23, 2012 | BITE: My Journal
Legend: Pepperhead Alert
A blind stab at the baffling menu brings splendid “authentic Chengdu soup” with tofu and pickled mustard greens. Photo: Gael Greene
It’s unusual to find a bar taking prime space in a Chinese restaurant, especially one tended by a vivacious babe in a fedora. It’s even more shocking to find a master chef cooking new era Sichuan food so well. It’s hard to tell if I’m high on rye or dry spicy prawns.
Legend has its bar fans too and a mixologist in a fedora. Photo: Gael Greene
I’ve arrived at Legend Bar and Restaurant in time for the early bird cocktail hour. I’ll have a Manhattan and order two for my friend who’s running late. Legend is his discovery.
It’s rare to find an authentic Sichuan master in the Village. Photo: Gael Greene
“How unusual is it that I am Colombian and working in a Chinese Restaurant?” the bartendrix agrees. “I was here when it was the Vietnamese place Jasmine and the new partners just let me stay.” That would be Ming Xing Bobby Wang and his partner, chef Ding Gen Wang, a master who has a following in China and cooked at Grand Sichuan Eastern in Midtown.
Ground chili heats up “hot and spicy pig hock” with peanuts. Photo: Gael Greene
Even though my friend Barry has been here before and sampled delivery, it takes us forever to wade through this klutzy menu. It’s a telephone directory. Spring rolls, Banh Cuon (rice crepes), and Hanoi noodles from its Vietnamese incarnation remain. American Chinese restaurant boiler plate follows for two pages. Then, Sichuan Cuisine in 75 options – six variations of prawns, scallops four ways, and Cheng Du appetizers, a flotilla of pickled pepper tricks I’ve not seen before, and “New Style Sichuan Food,” where the red pepper symbol warning of chili heat breaks out like measles.
“Hot, Spicy Crispy Prawns” are more torrid with shells on. Photo: Gael Greene
Yes. Yes. Yes. Spicy. That’s why we’re here. Hot and crispy prawns with shells on, of course. How frustrating that we have only two mouths for exploring. From the first bite of giant prawn, chewing the shell, I get a rush of sweet shrimp and chili heat. I’ve never tasted anything like the sauceless sauté of these juicy critters, tossed with crisps of dried bell peppers, peanuts and celery. Nothing in the Szechuan wave of the late ‘70s was anything like it. Nothing I’ve tasted in the new millennium has hinted at it.
Battered eggplant in a dry saute with bell peppers and peanuts. Photo: Rina Oh
An order of spicy eggplant – long tongues coated in cornstarch and fried ($13.95) – comes with the same nutty pepper and peanut crunch. “Spicy eggplant” is all the waitress said. No way to guess. It pays to ask about the vegetable specials and gamble.
Odd little fried egg-battered puffs of fresh corn are a discovery too. Though my companion failed to get the all-in-one-piece pork shank he saw at a nearby table on his last visit, the fiery dry sauté our waitress brings instead is unlike anything I’ve ever tasted — juicy morsels of pig coated in ground chilis, with peanuts again. Portions are huge. Frustrated that we can only taste. We agree to come back with reinforcements, pepperheads like us.
Days later, six of us tangling with the menu is equally exhausting, especially when four out of six are generals. “Numbing Pork Kidney” and “Tears in Eyes Bean Noodle” are noted but unchosen. I am curious to taste bitter melon. My friend Josephine says her mother insisted she eat bitter melon, promising it would be less bitter when she grew up. “And it’s not true.” A minor diversion.
Scant sauce and soggy noodles prompts us to send back dan dan noodles. Photo Rina Oh
We send back the soggy, overcooked dan dan noodles, mostly because the hot sauce is so scant. The house wants to know why, then takes it off the bill.
The monolithic pork, a Shanghai dish, served with crisp baby bok choy. Photo: Gael Greene
Barry is still trying to get that monolithic pork shank. It could be the braised tong po pork hock, a variation of a Shanghai dish with bok choy. I like the vegetable better than the pork. Josephine can never pass up bacon. For the Chinese taste, bacon is more fat than meat, as it is tonight. I taste a slice and then another. It tastes like uncrisped bacon, but I can’t stop eating the dried pickled mustard green.
Bring friends to share the authentic Sichuan fish filet in red sauce. Photo: Gael Greene
At least our group can agree we’ll have whatever they’re having at the next table. We ask our waitress what it is. Authentic Sichuan fish filet in red sauce with islands of sweet tofu is marvelous served in a giant mixing bowl – worth the trek all by itself. Otherwise, ordering is a stab in the dark.
I’m the sole customer at our table for these bitter melon slices. Photo: Gael Greene
At a third tasting, a tub of “authentic Chengdu fish” ordered blind off the menu is equally beguiling. It turns out to be delicately poached tilapia – in a clear broth with pickled mustard green and wilted pea shoots on rice noodles. But I want fat noodles. Even the beef chow fun packs unusual heat.
With 1000 pepper “quills,” Chongqing chicken looks forbidding. Photo: Gael Greene
A friend’s date confides that he is an ethnic food junkie and knows a little bit about Chendu cooking. He can read menu Chinese too. He urges us to try Chongqing diced chicken with chili peppercorns. A porcupine of roasted chili peppers almost hides dryish chunks of fried chicken underneath, but these merely add a toasty flavor. It’s the Sichuan peppercorns (ma la) in the marinade that numb the mouth.
Agreed, the lamb is succulent, but some are put off by the cumin pow. Photo: Gael Greene
He is more impressed than I by another Chendu specialty, the chef’s fried lamb with cumin. For me, the strong flavor of fresh ground cumin and ground dried chilis overwhelms the meat. He’s had the dish many times before, in Flushing and Manhattan, he says, but never with lamb so succulent.
Of course we want to taste the ma po tofu with black bean. Photo: Rina Oh
Ask for the check and Legend goes into a traditional mode. A plate of quartered orange arrives with fortune cookies. And I am planning another visit. I feel I’ve not yet made a dent in that menu. Perhaps we can get the chef to advise.
88 Seventh Avenue South between 15th and 16th Streets. 212 929 1778. Monday through Sunday 11:30 am to 11 pm.
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