Chef's special fish fillets at Red Chilli in the city. Photo: Graham Tidy
The arrival of Red Chilli Sichuan in Canberra has finally brought the kind of zero-compromise, no-holds-barred everyday Chinese that the city has so missed. Whether it is a genuine expression of the Chinese palate or a hotted up menu that aims to thrill, so many others are much better placed to say. But judging by the ethnicity of diners that pack the Red Chilli on our visit, this is not about appealing to the Western palate. You could spot perhaps a handful of other Western faces here tonight, and most of them are with Chinese companions.
The first thing we like about the Red Chilli, which sits just off Northbourne Avenue on Alinga Street, a few doors along from the post office, is the set-up. It's elaborate, ornate with its solid, dark-wood tables and chairs, silky strident-red cushions, and pretty decorated plate ware, with private rooms on one side, sitting dark tonight with expectation.
At the back is a stack of live fish tanks, whose signs advertise ''lived fish'' as if to presage their fate. As well as two kinds of fish (which weirdly appear to lie down on the bottom of their tank and go to sleep during the evening after vigorous activity earlier on), there are mud crabs at $68 a kilogram. And a tank also of little white abalone, at $8.50 apiece, hard to resist. You must order a minimum of four, and you can choose to have them steamed with mashed garlic; steamed with ginger; or stir-fried with chilli. The result is all you could hope - bitey but not chewy, delicate and sweet in a quite simple presentation with soy on glass noodles.
Red Chilli Sichuan in the city. Photo: Graham Tidy
As we weaved our way past tables of diners on the way in, it seemed many were ordering a dish that consists of a large bowl filled almost entirely with dried chillies, so in the spirit of when-in-Rome, we look for this on the menu - which isn't difficult since the menu has helpful pictures of many of the dishes. It turns out to be ''chef's special fish fillets'' ($38.50), and when it arrives, you discover the ludicrously large pile of dried chillies is floating in a bowl of oil, which also has a pile of fish in the middle, robust greens and sprouted beans in there too. The menu advises this is dish of a ''moderate'' heat but it sets your mouth on fire, the heat of the oil and what we assume are Sichuan peppercorns for their lemony, tongue-tingling effect coating your mouth in crazy sensation.
Which sets us hunting for dishes that qualify as ''extra spicy'', of which we find very little - there is a dish of ''fried chicken dices with very hot dried chillies'', one I suspect I will never get to. The fish in this bowl appears to have cooked simply in the heat of the dish, so has a delicacy and slipperiness about it, although flavour is hard to discern given the heat. We don't make much headway on this, and it leaves you a little agog at the price.
The menu is fun reading, a game of what innard or extremity you will choose next. Braised blood jelly, pork intestine, beef tripe and bean sprouts in spicy soup ($28.50). Sauced pork tongue slices ($11), or stir-fried duck tongues with chillies and sauce ($28.50). There's another dish of sliced beef ''tong'', which presumably is also tongue, served with tripe ($10.50). And a picture on the menu seems to represent gelatinous duck feet, but perhaps our imaginations are running away on us by now, hard to say.
Steamed pork belly with special preserved vegetable at Red Chilli. Photo: Graham Tidy
We order dumplings for the kids, boiled with hot and sweet sauce ($7.50 for six), and they're fine, standard versions. We order a chopped green onion pancake ($3.50), which is quite delicious, a fried flatbread with spring onions mixed in. And off the specials list, a dish of pork belly on sticky rice ($21.60). It comes as a dome shape, like it's been cooked in a bowl and turned out on to the plate. Sticky rice doesn't really describe the sheer stuck-together, squishy texture of this rice. It's virtually one monogamous ball, so little of the grain left as to be virtually not detectable at all. It's covered in strips of the pork belly, which are almost like bacon strips, and when you start eating them you realise they've been spread underneath with what I think is red-bean paste, so they're starchy and sticky in that peculiar mouthfilling way of red-bean paste, as well as being pretty funky in their porkiness. In fact, the entire dish is pungent, quite strong and texturally pretty challenging.
We begin on the wine list with Penfolds Koonunga Hill Autumn Riesling, but soon move to Tsingtao and tea, much more refreshing and suited to what we're eating.
Red Chilli, now with seven outlets, most in Sydney, has the theatrical Eastern philosophical thing going, with oddball comments dotting the menu, the more so in translation, like, ''We enjoy life more with the vision of the burning to enjoy delicious.'' Precisely, couldn't have put it better. And in a vision that seems peculiarly well associated with the hotpot dish, ''Release the bound of your mind to find the original spot, to pursuit the perfection.''
The welcome is warm at the door, and once at the table, service is fine, if utilitarian. You order, it arrives, the plates go, different wait staff appearing or not. You ask questions and they're answered with varying degrees of comprehension on each side.
We leave arguing about how to rate this place, and our score is conservative. Truth is, we haven't eaten a great deal, and what we have eaten has left us feeling more overwhelmed than awed. But this diner is left with considerable admiration for the sheer punch of the food, the edginess of the ingredients, and the evident lack of compromise. With a few visits, you would learn to negotiate the menu. I would, for example, be heading for the simple, fresh jellyfish salad next time, or some of the simple soups, or vegetable dishes (''stirfried asparagus lettuce with/without sliced pork'', ''stir-fried spinach with/without garlic''). You would come to believe, I hazard, that this is by far the best straight Chinese (excluding the mix-it-up fancy Sichuan of Malamay) in Canberra.
Wine list 2/4
Value for money 3/4
- 02 6248 6288
- Cuisine - Chinese
- Features - Accepts bookings, BYO, Licensed, Wheelchair access, Private dining
- Chef(s) - Qiang Yuan, Dong Xie and Yi Zhuang
- Owners - Jie Qian
- Cards accepted - Mastercard, Visa, Cash, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Seven days lunch 11.30am-2.30pm, dinner from 5pm
- Seats - 140 inside
- Author - Kirsten Lawson