Dainty Sichuan

Ma po tofu dish from Danity Sichuan Chinese restaurant in Toorak.
Ma po tofu dish from Danity Sichuan Chinese restaurant in Toorak. Photo: Eddie Jim

176 Toorak Road South Yarra, VIC 3141

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Opening hours Mon & Wed-Fri 11.30am-2.30pm,Sat-Sun noon-2.30pm,Sun-Mon & Wed-Thurs 4.30pm-9.30pm,Fri-Sat 4.30pm-10pm
Features BYO, Vegetarian friendly, Groups
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos
Phone 03 9078 1686

WHERE AND WHAT

The most ironically named restaurant in Melbourne, Dainty Sichuan is certainly Sichuan but it's a long way from dainty. The regional Chinese cuisine's token searingly hot and simultaneously mouth-numbing qualities - the cumulative effect of the Sichuan peppercorns - will separate the real chilli-lovers from the mere dilettantes.

WHERE TO SIT

A big restaurant near the corner of Toorak and Chapel, Dainty Sichuan has a small army of ear-piece-wearing waiters specialising in brusque service. Diners are asked when they book if they're after a hotpot table with inbuilt gas burner, in which case it's the less attractive back of the room near the fish tanks and kitchen.

WHEN TO GO

Closed on Tuesdays, the rest of the Dainty Sichuan week goes something like this: Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 11.30am-2.30pm and 4.30-9.30pm; Friday, 11.30am-2.30pm and 4.30-10pm; Saturday, noon-2.30pm and 4.30-10pm; Sunday, noon-2.30pm and 4.30-9.30pm. Payment is in cash only and there's an ATM in the foyer.

DRINK

You can buy soft drink or beer - Tsingtao and Taiwan beer being the pick of the limited range - but if it's wine you're after it's BYO at $2 a head. Waiters can direct you to a nearby bottleshop.

EAT

Go for a hotpot table - it's worth it, at least once. However, the waiters are fairly indifferent about training newbies in the art of DIY cooking and are maddeningly elusive on the all-important factor of timing for different cuts of meat - and you get a long photo-illustrated menu listing ingredients, from pork and coriander meatballs to brisket, tripe, pig stomach and kidney or, from the vegetable world, different types of mushroom, bamboo and various greens. Then choose your stock base - with the menu helpfully listing degrees of heat - which then turns up in a large metal bowl to be warmed by the gas flame in the middle of the table. Cook. Eat. Occasionally a waiter will come along to top up the stock base. The separate a la carte menu sticks to the typical chilli symbol warning system - three chillies denoting the hottest dishes, which will leave the average diner reaching for the water. It's not all incendiary, mind-blowing stuff. Classics such as the ma po tofu - a fragrant red stew of tofu and minced pork - get a pleasant tingle going. Slices of slow-braised pork belly are a revelation.

WHO'S THERE

All sorts, including a healthy quorum of Chinese students armed with chilled bottles of soy milk.

WHY BOTHER?

For Sichuan food's addictive qualities in an addictively frenetic environment.

Dainty Sichuan - 176 Toorak Road, South Yarra, phone 9078 1686.