Chien Lieh Tang is the chef at the resurrected Hwa Yuan, and although his cooking is not hard to appreciate, a little orientation may help. First, a warning: Those who believe that the only good Sichuan food makes you weep, sniffle, moan, call 911 or crawl under the table will need to adjust their standards. Hwa Yuan serves many family recipes that reflect an earlier stage of Sichuan cooking and Shorty Tang’s time in Taiwan. While chiles are often present, they rarely dominate. Nor does the kitchen try to lard extra umami into every dish. The best food at Hwa Yuan tries to impress through charm, not arm-twisting.
Family pride being the point here, dishes that carry the names Tang or Hwa Yuan tend to be excellent. Not, I’m afraid, the Hwa Yuan dry-aged shell steak, which got impressive flavor from basting with marrow but was knotted with tough membranes when I tried it.
But Tang’s Amazing Spicy Wine Chicken was a treat, very tender hunks of dark meat in a delicate sauce of Shaoxing rice wine, bean paste and chile oil. Tang’s Amazing Tofu was a minor discovery, seared squares of pressed tofu with fresh green chiles in a sauce that’s more interesting than you’d guess from its pale tan color. Hot Tang Tang noodles may sound like cold sesame noodles run through the microwave; they are something completely different, short strands of noodle in a steaming cup of sour-and-spicy broth that has a businesslike edge of roasted dried chiles.
And Whole Fish with Hot Bean Sauce, Tang Family Creation is a bona fide star, the dish I know I’ll order again even if I’m not in the mood for cold noodles. It had a devoted following at the original restaurant, where it was made with carp. Now it is barramundi, precisely cooked and resting in a rusty mash of chile oil, fermented soybeans and chopped scallions. It’s a forceful dish that’s still noteworthy for its balance.
As for the Hwa Yuan crab cake, I have no idea whether it lives up to the name. The kitchen was always out of it, along with such other intrigues as duck liver pâté and foie gras with fruit.
The other major warning: My Peking duck did not deserve the fanfare it gets on the menu, where it is called Beijing duck. I phoned ahead to reserve a duck and a half for a large group, was told on arrival that the half duck wasn’t available, settled for the whole duck, and found that it wasn’t worth ordering in advance, or the $65 it cost. The carving was imprecise enough to make me glad it was only a roast duck under the knife and not a heart-surgery patient, and while the meat was juicy, pink and flavorful, the skin was flabby and as crisp as boiled spinach.
Less heralded menu entries warrant a look, though. There is no reason to believe that soup dumplings, which arrived in New York by way of Shanghai long after Shorty Tang’s heyday, will be any good at Hwa Yuan. They are. So are the thick and juicy pan-fried dumplings.
I can never resist snow-pea shoots, and have never come across any as delicious as Hwa Yuan’s. The dry-sautéed string beans are about average, but stir-fried brussels sprouts with bacon is a rewarding variation on Sichuanese cabbage with pork.
Sichuan cooks seem to have a special understanding of potatoes, which may explain why the little marble-size ones here, cooked kung pao style with peanuts and dried chiles, are so unusually good.
I hope to fake my way into reproducing the dish at home, which would make me the latest in a long line of Hwa Yuan imitators.
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