Dainty Sichuan's new CBD venture. Photo: Ken Irwin
Dainty Sichuan, a South Yarra Chinese restaurant with a cult following, has just opened a very welcome second branch in Chinatown. The Sichuan food at Dainty, as it's affectionately known, isn't just chilli hot, it's also spicy-spiky due to the fierce, floral Sichuan pepper that's a key ingredient in this cuisine. But there's an almost transcendental aspect to the food, too. Eating it makes me elated, dazed and wobbly: climbing the Chongqing chilli chicken mountain is a bit like summiting Everest.
During a recent session at the new Dainty, I whispered to my friend that I thought my bones were separating inside my body. Weird. But great - and addictive.
The restaurant is upstairs in the shiny food haven that is 206 Bourke. Dainty Sichuan is part of the Rainbow complex, which also includes a pool hall and an amazing karaoke bar with themed private rooms (there are teddy bears!).
Sichuan dried cucumber with chilli and coriander. Photo: Ken Irwin
The large restaurant area is separated with timber screens into many zones; tables are inlaid with electric hotplates to enable DIY hotpot dining. The menu is pictorial and dishes are marked with a chilli rating: one for ''fairly mild'', three for ''you are crazy''. There's crossover with the South Yarra restaurant menu, but not all of the dishes have made it to the CBD.
The Chongqing chilli chicken is here and it's loud and proud. A massive pile of spiced deep-fried chicken knuckles (the knees, really) is tossed with dried red chillies and Sichuan pepper. You're not expected to eat the chillies, but even so, the dish is a tongue-numbing dance of pleasure and pain.
Two cold dishes push my summer buttons. A salad of charred dried cucumber is tossed with green chillies and fresh coriander and has a sharp, throaty vinegar hit. The mixed skewers are fabulous: deboned chicken feet, tripe, tofu and black fungus are impaled on bamboo and dunked in a black, oily, spicy stock that's brought to the table in a ceramic pot. It's my kind of firewater and the dish is a textural masterpiece.
In contrast, a ham and cauliflower wok dish is a gentle, salty stir-fry.
Beer is available, but I reckon the lychee ice does a pretty neat job of briefly subduing the chilli sweats. The service is swift and friendly but, overall, the restaurant is less bustling than the South Yarra venue - so far, anyway. I love them both with feverish passion, though dainty they certainly ain't.
4 stars (out of five)
- 9650 2188
- Cuisine - Chinese
- Prices - Dishes, $6.80-$42.80; hotpots, about $30 a person
- Features - Licensed, BYO
- Opening Hours - Daily, 11.30am-3pm; Sun to Thurs, 5-10pm; Fri-Sat, 5-10.30pm
- Author - Dani Valent