Swish ... Red Chilli Sichuan restaurant at 75 Alinga Street. Photo: Katherine Griffiths
As soon as you walk in Red Chilli's Alinga Street front door, you get a good idea of what your in for. Great smells fill the place and many tables are already tucking into huge platters of plump whole fish, surrounded by a volcanic mound of red chilli, in Sichuan style.
Tables are glass topped, giving a clear view of the lacquered traditional tables and chairs beneath - and the whole place has a shiny, Chinese look, with most of the fittings imported to create an authentic environment, we are told.
Negotiating the long menu, full of bright pictures that bear a startling resemblance to the actual food, can be a challenge for the non-Chinese first timer.
Most of the customers are Chinese (a very good sign) and taking a keen interest in what they are eating or ordering, including fish and seafood from the tanks up the back.
Extensive ... Lamb ribs with cumin, braised pork with soy sauce, stir-fried green beans with pork mince, wonton in hot chilli sauce and boiled dumplings with pork and cabbage. Photo: Katherine Griffiths
This is no Westernised Chinese, and thank goodness for that. Little ''Asian fusion'' is going on here either, with the dishes all hailing from the great southwestern Chinese region of Sichuan, distinguished by its use of chilli and the tongue numbing Sichuan peppercorn.
Negotiating the long menu, full of bright pictures that bear a startling resemblance to the actual food, can be a challenge for the non-Chinese first timer. After a few visits it is easier. Like many Chinese restaurants of this style, you can order very good food with an eye on the wallet, or really push the boat out with abalone and lobster, or any number other specialist dishes. And here the quality would justify the expense.
The staff are friendly and attentive, and answer questions as well as they can.
The Canberra Red Chilli is a part of the group that has been feeding people in Melbourne and Sydney for some time, with similar menus and layouts across the various restaurants. The ''chain'' restaurant is usually bad news for the eater, but in this case the place seems to have a personality of its own, and most importantly good food at decent prices.
Skipping over the many dishes with ingredients you probably need to grow up with (pork intestine, pork blood, boiled pork skin, the list goes on) we settle on a small dish of wontons in chilli sauce ($7.50) to ease us into the spicy feast ahead.
There are so many cheap frozen wontons about these days that a good one - with tender skin, and carefully flavoured pork filling - is a joyous reminder of what these lovely mouthfuls should taste like. The small chilli-sauce soup they are swimming in is just right, spicy and tangy and a wonderful foil to the sweet neutrality of the wonton.
A plate of boiled pork and finely shredded cabbage dumplings (12 for $12) are similarly good, fat and well made. Fried green onion pancake ($3.50) is like a tiny Chinese fried naan, crispy and delicious, and extra good dipped in to the left over chilli sauce.
A small bowl of dan dan noodles ($7.50), the ones without chilli, is great for the kids, with a little clear soup to lubricate the soft white noodles, a scant spoon of fried pork mince and a few bits of green veg. Perfect invalid food, too.
The wine list is short with pretty standard fare, and our Leo Buring medium-dry riesling ($29) does well with the big flavours.
A generous bowl of pork cubes dark with soy and heady with the liquorice tang of star anise, are rich and wonderfully tender and terrific value ($22.50). Team this dish with a plate of Chinese broccoli or spinach or a similarly clean vegetable, and you would have perhaps the best-value lunch for two in Canberra.
Well-trimmed little lamb ribs ($22) are done in the classic Sichuan style, dusted in an ample amount of cumin and spice, and dry fried, making them very easy to pick up and eat, again and again.
Green beans ($14.50) are quickly stir-fried so that the skin shrivels a little, with highly flavoured little bits of pork and garlic. This dish is a triumph of technique and is expertly prepared at Red Chilli, showing off the beans in all their juicy cleanness, wonderfully contrasted with the high flavour and spice that clings to them.
Stir-fried clams ($18) that you can pick up in your fingers taste of the sea, and work well with the simple chilli hit.
Dessert is not a major feature at Red Chilli and true to form there was certainly no banana fritter or lychee and ice-cream, although there are sometimes strawberry spring rolls.
We cleaned up our pork instead.
Red Chilli is a very welcome addition to Chinese eating in Canberra, which often suffers from not having a large enough Chinese population to put an authentic and regional stamp on local restaurants.
And while the ancient Sichuan cuisine has virtually conquered the world, it is always refreshing to find a place that has not bowed to the dulling effect the West so often has on what we used to call food from the exotic East.
- Cuisine - Chinese
- Features - Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access, BYO
- Chef(s) - Qiang Yuan, Dong Xie and Yi Zhuang
- Owners - Jie Qian
- Cards accepted - EFTPOS, Visa, Mastercard
- Opening Hours - Seven days, lunch 11.30am-2.30pm, dinner from 5pm.
- Seats - 120 inside
- Other Branches - Chinatown, Sydney, Harbour Plaza, Sydney, Chatswood, Sydney, Brisbane, Burwood, Melbourne
- Author - Catriona Jackson
Red Chilli Sichuan
Chef Yi Zhuang at the Red Chilli Sichuan Restaurant. Photo: Katherine Griffiths