Photo: Eddie Jim
LIKE many a gweilo, I follow the pack when it comes to Chinese. A restaurant full of Asian faces equals a high probability of happiness. Dainty Sichuan scores well on that reassuring factor, but the behaviour of a table of uni-student types might rattle any Dainty novice. I'm not talking about their collective iPhone obsession (who'll join me in fighting this restaurant scourge?) or even the two litres of soy milk they've taken from the help-yourself fridge, but the latex surgical gloves they've donned to tackle the hotpot. Take it as a sign. Sichuan is scorching and Dainty Sichuan the hottest - literally and figuratively - of them all.
The usual observations made during its decade-long existence still stand, despite the deservedly cult restaurant's 2009 move from the city to South Yarra. The decor of this always-pumping place remains keenly utilitarian, punctuated by occasional outbreaks of Chinoiserie: a filigree-panelled flourish here, an ornate light fitting there decorating the easy-clean blandness of the two-storey space.
Dainty Sichuan won't win any service awards, unless they're for the restaurant equivalent of the Razzies. A small army of stern, headpiece-wearing waiters gives the appearance of militarised capability, but it's all so much window-dressing for service that starts at brusque indifference and ventures south towards sullen contempt. Last but not least, someone with a sense of humour had a hand in the naming. Dainty it is not.
Maybe ''Bludgeon you about the head until you're begging for mercy Sichuan'' was already taken. It's an uncompromising take on the food of the western hinterland province, known for its distinctive peppercorn (really the husk of the prickly ash berry) that numbs the mouth and, in tandem with mountains of chilli, causes acute physical discomfort.
Don't go expecting much in the way of ceremony. The chefs send things out as fast as their woks will heat them, the random order ignoring accepted notions of progression.
The food doesn't heed notions of entrees and mains anyway; delineation is provided by the progression from cold to hot dishes.
Whatever the centigrade, most are sluiced with varying shades of red oil - some of it gently savoury, some a-tingling, some with a kick like the hind leg of a mule.
It's the sort of place where to mistake the etymology of ''mouth-watering chicken'' could be disastrous: the regional classic is said to refer to the saliva-promoting qualities of Sichuan peppercorns rather than its deliciousness. But delicious it is, shredded chicken the texture of cold velvet working disconcertingly against the slow creep of heat the dish generates. And pork stomach threads (the Chinese doctrine of nose-to-tail eating also yields the offaly likes of steamed intestines, spicy beef heart with tongue and hot blood curd combination pot), as with most of this fare, prove a wholesale textural experience that's as much about the give and the chew as the surprisingly gentle porky flavour. On the phone you'll be asked if you'd rather sit at a hotpot table or stick to the regular menu. It's a ton of fun sitting with a bubbling cauldron of stock in the centre of the table and everything from meats to exotic mushrooms to cook yourself, but staff disinterest can make it hard to get the most from the experience.
That said, a waiter whose diligence, enthusiasm and sage advice will make him an outcast among his co-workers steered us in the direction of a hotpot by stealth on the a la carte menu, the grand but worryingly titled ''boiling fish in golden basin''.
Usually, boiling the Vietnamese catfish would be the best it deserves but it's an extraordinary rehabilitation of the dreaded basa, dried and reconstituted into a fall-apart texture, not unlike the supple velvet of rice noodles - magnificent. I was expecting firm and rubbery; I got soft and pliant, the thin fillets having soaked up the distinctive, almost minty-pine Sichuan spice.
Like many of the larger dishes, barbecue beef ribs arrive on their own gas burner.
It's a ridiculously super-sized serve (best tackle Dainty in a pack and make the most of the agreeable doggy bag policy) of sticky, chewy, gnarly and super-caramelised ribs, with taro (I think) in there, too. The overall effect is of the guilty indulgence at the bottom of the roasting tray when boundaries between protein, carb and fat become wonderfully blurred.
Any meal at Dainty Sichuan will end inevitably with the mouth in such a general state of befuddlement that the flavours get lost in the culinary version of white noise. Baby cuttlefish with pickled chilli provoke thoughts of renal failure but, regardless, it's possible to enjoy the textural pop of the tiny cephalopods before heading for the cooling vegetable pickles to momentarily banish the pain. Lest I give the impression it's all firepower, there's complexity, too, befitting the gutsy, fragrant, multi-dimensional cooking of the province.
Dainty's ma po tofu - Sichuan's answer to penicillin - is blamelessly good and the photo-illustrated menu has plenty of pictures that don't look too incendiary, if you're willing to take a punt. But as they say, when in Sichuan … drink the soy milk, don the plastic gloves if you must. Take a walk on the wild side.
Where 176 Toorak Road, South Yarra
Phone 9078 1686
Cost Typical small dish, $12; large dish, $28
Licensed Serving beer only. Plus BYO, wine only (corkage $2 a person)
Owner Ye Shao
Chef Tina Li
Dietary Gluten-free available
Noise A happy rumble
Service Brusque with the odd outbreak of niceness
Cards V MC Eftpos
Hours Mon, Wed-Thurs, 11.30am-2.30pm, 4.30-9.30pm; Fri 11.30am-2.30pm, 4.30-10pm; Sat noon-2.30pm, 4.30-10pm; Sun noon-2.30pm, 4.30-9.30pm
- 03 9078 1686
- Cuisine - Chinese
- Prices - Typical small dish, $12; large dish, $28
- Features - Licensed, BYO
- Chef(s) - Tina Li
- Owners - Ye Shao
- Cards accepted - Cash, EFTPOS, Visa, Mastercard
- Opening Hours - Mon, Wed-Thurs, 11.30am-2.30pm, 4.30-9.30pm; Fri 11.30am-2.30pm, 4.30-10pm; Sat noon-2.30pm, 4.30-10pm; Sun noon-2.30pm, 4.30-9.30pm
- Author - Larissa Dubecki