Monday, October 15, 2012

Sichuan Grandeur Amid Bland Sprawly Blandness

A critical mass of Asian faculty and grad students at Stony Brook University can finally support a really good restaurant. Yao's Diner (2503 Middle Country Rd, Centereach, NY; 631-588-2218) was opened by someone from the university who was sick of the long drive to Flushing for good Chinese food. Determined to offer it closer to home, he overshot his goal. The food here is even better than you can find in Flushing.

They mostly do Sichuan, with some Shanghai dishes and a big emphasis on hot pots. My small group couldn't dive too deeply into the extensive menu (here's a PDF), but everything we tried was a big winner.

The chef has such a classically meticulous touch that it's hard to say much about his work. How does one describe perfection? But I'll single out two qualities:

He's got a crazy knack for timings. The egg in the fried rice is consummately moist, the sauteed pumpkin is optimally melting - not quite chewy, not quite mushy. The bok choy was like a masterclass on stir frying Asian greens; plenty of snap, yet still tender. I've never seen timings more consistently flawless in a Sichuan restaurant. After the first couple of dishes, you start taking it for granted. You quickly sense that mistakes don't ever happen here.

Secondly, the chef has tons of little tricks up his sleeve. He cuts his garlic in lots of different ways, and throwaways - like the scattering of cilantro, chili pepper, cumin, garlic and ginger atop the cumin fried fish - revealed, upon close examination, deep thoughtfulness in prep and execution. Details count for a lot here.

There's way too much emphasis on technique and restraint to expect much in the way of soulful deliciousness. This chef's not trying to play those notes (perhaps he lets down his hair a bit more with the menu's many hot pots). But that's fine. Sometimes you want to bask in majestically skilled refinement. And Yao's Diner delivers exactly that, from an unlikely storefront Chinese "diner" in the middle of freaking Centereach, Long Island!

Let's go to the videotape (i.e. iPhone snapshots, which I suggest you click to expand):

Chestnut chicken

It's not billed as such on the menu, but this is one of Mao's famous red-cooked dishes, and I've never had a better version. The chicken is extremely tender and flavorful, the chestnuts are ideally portioned and textured, and the sauce has the just the right wineyness.

Cumin fried fish

I need to check the calligraphy, but I suspect this is a riff on the Shanghai dish known as "Yellow fish with dried seaweed". But here they dose it with chili peppers and a fairly subtle dusting of cumin (next time I'll try the Sichuan litmus dish of fried lamb with cumin).

It took a few minutes to acclimatize to the chef's frying aesthetic. He's not aiming for crustiness; the batter's actually slightly chewy. The surprising textural complexity grows on you. You never grow tired of it as you might with, say, southern-style fried fish.

That the frying is greaseless and the fish perfectly moist goes without saying.

Fried rice with shrimp, egg, and ham

So refined and subtle that it's easy to miss how (again) perfect it is. The chef is not a show off - highly trained Sichuan chefs never are. It's about making things "just so", and stopping there. In this case, each ingredient is at the optimum point of doneness. The copious skill involved in its preparation has been deftly concealed, revealing only cloud-like, nutty, moist and wonderfully varied succulence.

"Sauteed Shanghai Green Vegetable"

I asked the waitress whether this mysterious menu item was bok choy. She replied by asking me, deadpan, "what's bok choy?" And it did turn out to be, as you can see, bok choy (baby). Crisp, fresh, garlicky, lots of sizzly wok flavor. A show stopper.

Sauteed pumpkin with ginger

Simple. Refined. Subtle. Perfect. Forgive my boring prose; once again, perfection can be boring to describe. They also make pumpkin pancakes, which I hope to try next time.

Decor is functional, a step up from boxy hole-in-wall. Service from the two young servers - a slightly aloof, somewhat scattered woman and a completely aloof and defiantly unengaging male - was at least suficient to get the dishes to our table. The owner seemed friendlier, but only appeared at the end of our meal.

The crowd is a blend of Asian grad students and exultant gringo chowhounds. One of the latter came by on his way out and told me I looked familiar. I replied that of COURSE I look familiar; how many people are out there sussing out such obscure places? The same two hundred of us are constantly eating together! He chuckled, and I hollered "catch you next time!" over my shoulder as he walked out the door.

Next door is an exceptional-looking Hispanic buffet place.

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