Milk bottles, Angelina Jolie style lip enlargement, numerous trips to the toilet, tissues and endless supplies of iced tea, this is what has fondly become known in my friendship circle as the ‘Dainty treatment’. Nestled in a large Imperial style restaurant on Toorak Road, this is no place for the faint hearted. For those who share a love of all things heat, make your way to Dainty Sichuan, Melbourne’s answer to a living food contest: a battle to finish your meal.
Now to most people this will be bizarre, something reserved for an Anthony Bourdain special, but to me this brings out my competitive side. We arrive late in the evening and are herded to a free table by a waiter speaking into a hearing device, which obviously relays your order to the kitchen. Talk about speedy service. The decor is typically Chinese, gold trimmings, open front windows, paintings and bronze sculptures. I feel like I have been transported to a restaurant in Imperial China, minus the technologically savvy waiters. The menu is large and daunting when all you can smell and see are chillies. The moment you walk into the place, the smoky scent of chillies fills the air. Dishes are rated out of five for heat, to give you a better chance of success. We choose the Kung Pao chicken to see if it can rival my own version, Bang Bang chicken, steamed pork buns and iced tea to wash down the lot.
Oddly our dishes arrived before I had barely finished placing the order, talk about a fast turnover. The first dish was the Bang Bang chicken, traditionally served as street food, it derives its name from the noise that chefs make when tenderizing chicken with a meat cleaver. Pieces of cold white cooked chicken are submerged in a chilli, soy and sesame sauce, laden with Sichuan peppercorns and garnished with coriander. The flavour was smoky and spicy due to the heavy-handed addiction of Sichuan pepper. The chicken was incredibly tender. Sichuan pepper is supposed to numb the mouth while eating hot dishes, unfortunately it didn’t live up to its promise. While I enjoyed the dish, I struggled to finish my share.
Before our meal I laughed at a man who carried in a bottle of milk, one dish down I envied him. Now like some Alice in Wonderland trip, all I could see was bottles of milk on every table. How could people even attempt to drink wine? Next up was their signature dish Kung Pao chicken, soft caramelised chicken pieces stir-fried with dried chillies, peanuts, spring onions, soy and vinegar. I must have ignored the chilli scale when choosing my meal, this was even hotter than the last. The sticky sweetness of sugar paired perfectly with the sour notes in the vinegar and the saltiness of soy. A perfect example of balanced flavours in Chinese food philosophy. Next time, I’d order this one with milk. To sound bias, I prefer my own Kung Pao chicken, I can at least have a second serve without chargrilling my mouth.
By the time we had sufficiently sweated out all of our toxins, cried and laughed at our pathetic attempt at finishing the meal, our steam buns reach the table. After all the chilli, I found the buns dry and boring. Overall, I had a rather entertaining experience, I wouldn’t say it is the best Chinese I have had, nor the worst, it is more about the experience. Sometimes a hit of chilli does wonders for the body and soul, however in hindsight I would have chosen milder dishes. Although I enjoyed the meal, I was not able to truly taste all of the flavours of each dish. For the chilli tolerant or for those who live on the edge this is an old favourite…..