The entrance to Guan Fu— the latest in a recent string of higher end Sichuan openings in downtown Flushing’s Chinatown—is flanked by two formidable foo lions standing sentry outside a facade that calls to mind a temple or palace. Quite appropriate given that the black and gold plaque reads “Guan Fu Chuan Cai,” which translates to “Official Palace Szechuan Cuisine.”
I’ve been mighty curious about Guan Fu since it opened. My interest reached a fever pitch when Pete Wells bestowed three stars upon it this summer. So when the one of the owners reached out with a dinner invite I couldn’t say no. As I waited for my dining companion on a bench facing the entrance delicious aromas wafted towards me as the doors opened and closed.
Xue Wei ushered us into a private room where we were presented a little package, which contained wooden tips, to screw into the chopsticks, because presumably that is what one does when eating in a Sichuan palace. The napkins bore the Chinese characters that read “chuan cai xing biao gang,” or “Sichuan cuisine new benchmark,” while a paragraph at the front of the menu trumpeted the expense of the ingredients used. Despite Wells’ review and all the other wonderful things I’d heard, I was dubious until my first bite of chuan bei liang fen (Sichuan bean jelly with homemade sauce, $8). The tangle of blocky mung bean noodles sat in a lake of scarlet oil, and looked many versions I’ve had before, but the taste was far more complex. In addition to heat, the oil had a sweetness and depth of flavor that Xue says comes from the chef employing 32 ingredients. We were also mightily impressed by a cold jellyfish appetizer.
Homestyle roasted fish sings with ma la flavor.
Mr. Wells may be partial to boiled fish with pickled cabbage (suan cai yu, $28) but Wei suggested we try homemade roasted fish (mi zhi kao yu), and I’m glad he did. Even though it featured Sichuan peppercorns, dried chilies, and fresh red chilies it was far less of a ma la steam roller than expected. It was wonderfully balanced as was the chili dry pot frog (gan guo niu wa, $28), which Wei informed us is representative of a Sichuan flavor profile known as double pepper 双椒 (shuang jiao).
“Nobody else in New York City can make this one,” Wei proudly stated as he placed a platter of kung pao chicken (gong bao ji ding $18) before us. Again I was dubious, but the velvety pieces of chicken shot through with roasted peanuts and ginger and roasted chilies were spicy, savory, and above all, subtle.
One of my favorite dishes had no heat or meat whatsoever. Fried corn with salted egg yolk (jin sha yu mi, $26), is a platter of sweet kernels coated in a salty savory batter made from preserved egg yolk. The taste is somewhere between popcorn and the yolks found in mooncake, but far better than both. You may be tempted to make quick work of this wondrous dish—as did a crew of influencers who I dined with on a subsequent occasion— but don’t do it. Save some to use as a counterpoint to Guan Fu’s hotter dishes.
Guan Fu’s ma po tofu ($14) is excellent spooned over rice and far less of a palate blaster than many versions. One of the reasons it goes so well with the rice is that the chef adds a bit of glutinous rice, making for a perfect vehicle for the sauce.
Chicken with double pepper (shuang jiao bao tung zi ji, $23) was one of the last and spiciest dishes I tried at Guan Fu. Featuring Sichuan peppercorns, hot Italian green peppers, dried chilies, and fresh red chilies, it should really be called chicken with quadruple pepper. Like the frog dish it’s representative of the Sichuan flavor profile known as shuang jiao or double pepper.
I learned almost as much about Sichuan food by dining with Wei as I did by reading Fuchsia Dunlop. Perhaps one of the most surprising dishes was stewed beef with pickled peppers (pao jiao niu liu, $24). The peppers in question turn out to be something very near and dear to this Italian boy’s heart, bright red pickled cherry peppers. And to think there are some people say I’ve forsaken my culinary heritage to focus solely on regional Chinese food.
Guan Fu Sichuan, 39-16 Prince Street, Flushing, (347) 610-6999