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Thursday, Jan. 27, 2000

NO FLASH IN THE WOK

Culinary fire power, Szechwan style


They've never been big on central heating over in the Middle Kingdom. In rural Sichuan, when the icy winter gales blow in from across the Gobi desert, there's only one prescription for keeping the cold at bay: spicy food -- especially the fiery local hotpots -- at regular intervals and in generous quantities.

So when the craving hits to get yourself some of that same medicine, there's only one thing to do. It's time for a trip to Szechwan (the alternate spelling by which the province and its distinctive chili-driven cuisine are better known in the West). Not the place, of course, but the restaurant of the same name, just above Meidi-ya on Roppongi-dori.

Szechwan (its Japanese name is Shisen Hanten) is one of a chain run by high-profile chef Ching Ken'ichi. Born in China but raised in Japan (hence the cross-cultural name), Ching has become virtually a household name here since his involvement in the popular (and now deceased) TV program "Ryori no Tetsujin."

He may wear the gaudy robes of an Iron Chef, but there's nothing flashy at all about Szechwan. At first glance, as you climb out of the modest elevator, it seems about as prepossessing as the dining room of an old-school tourist hotel in downtown Chongqing.

This place was probably dated when it was built. No-nonsense chairs with straight wooden backs are set around tables covered with linen of Chinese scarlet. The shiny, washable plastic wallpaper is adorned with the inevitable calligraphy and standard-issue landscape paintings. The ceiling is low and net nylon curtains reveal the expressway churning past outside. The air is perfumed with equal parts appetizing aromas and acrid cigarette smoke. The carpet is not threadbare, but it's certainly not new either.

Generic this may appear, but it is also reassuring, as is the presence of so many mainlanders among the waiting and kitchen staff. The trilingual menu is manageably succinct, with a mere 142 dishes listed (though were you to ask they could probably come up with plenty more), under the standard groupings of starters, seafood, tofu, rice and noodles, etc.

The section of greatest interest to us, though, is the casserole category. You have a choice of vegetable, seafood or "mix meats" (their translation of the Japanese gomoku). Although only the seafood version is listed as spicy, it is the last that works best when given the full-blown Szechwan treatment.

It sounds totally carnivorous, but "mix meats" actually involves relatively little animal protein. It is a bubbling hot stew of chicken, shiitake mushrooms, small morsels of gelatinous sea cucumber, slices of bamboo shoot, green bok choi (chingensai), Chinese cabbage (hakusai) and cellophane noodles (biifun), all cooked down in a rich, red chicken broth flavored with pieces of Chinese ham -- and ample amounts of chili.

In terms of raw heat, this is not the kind of seven-alarm fare you expect to find at Mexican, Thai or Korean restaurants. Down on the farm in Sichuan it would probably be considered anemic. But the skill here lies in the blending of many pungent flavors, including garlic, brown fagara pepper and other spices.

This is equally evident in many of the other items. Try the "special sauce" on the steamed chicken appetizer (#7 on the menu). Cold cuts of banbanji-style chicken are arranged on a bed of fine-sliced cucumber, and covered in a piquant sauce that contains (among other things) sesame oil, chili, brown pepper, star anise and cinnamon, all combined with a wonderful harmony.

Another representative dish in the Szechwanese canon is sauteed squid with cashew nuts (#33). In the interior of China they use dried squid but here it is fresh, scored to form miniature florettes. The combination of soft, chewy squid, crisp cashews and sweet, slightly fibrous scallions is simple but satisfying, and imbued with just the right level of heat by the addition of large slices of red pepper.

Everything can be ordered in either small or large portions -- and a couple of small dishes (like the above) are likely to be plenty for two people, if they are followed by a casserole and some plain rice. But there is so much other good stuff on the menu that you would do well to come as part of a larger group.

There is mabo-dofu, of course, and it is infinitely superior to the versions dished up at most chuka restaurants in Japan. Even better is their version cooked with braised fried bean curd (atsu-age), in a similar sauce of spicy minced pork (look for #86 on the menu). And just because most local people go for the breaded deep-fried crab claws (#45) and the spicy tantanmen noodles (#124), that doesn't mean you shouldn't.

All in all, this is some of the most satisfying Szechwanese food in town (though the genre is woefully underrepresented in Tokyo). The only disappointment is the desserts. The choice is between almond jelly and tapioca with bean jam. You may prefer just to have a pot of their very good oolong tea. If you don't leave it too late, you can always pick up something to take home with you from Meidi-ya when you get back to street level.

There's Chinese food of an entirely different nature at the brand-new Cardenas Chinois, which flung open its doors for business last week in Nishi-Azabu. If you're familiar with its sister restaurants -- Cardenas in Hiroo and Fummy's Grill nearer to Yebisu Garden Place -- you'll know exactly what to expect.

In this case the cutting-edge fusion fare has been given a Southern California Chinatown accent: The sauteed foie gras comes with a hoisin cinnamon sauce and the crab risotto is served with bok choi and shiitake mushrooms. There are succulent, spicy sauteed scallops, and you should not miss the delectably juicy duck and mushroom pot-stickers (gyoza).

The chicken is free range, the vegetables organic, they use no MSG and there are plenty of well-priced New World wines to wash it all down in style. It's casual but polished, chic yet fun -- and what's more, it's open every day till 4 in the morning.

Cardenas Chinois, 4-10-5 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku (03) 5766-1737. From the Nishi-Azabu crossing, walk down Gaien-Nishi-dori and turn right at the over-the-top Wall Building. Then take the next left and walk 50 meters down the street. Cardenas Chinois is immediately on the right.

If you have feedback or recommendations, you can contact the Tokyo Food File by e-mail at foodfile@yahoo.com.


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