Was it a Chinese proverb that said there is “no true art without a strong dose of banality … nothing is less endurable than the uniformity of the exceptional?" Perhaps it was Cioran.
Either way, it’s an insight that is confirmed at the new Sichuan Kitchen on Congress Street, where they don’t try to dazzle you with anything except the food on your plate. The space is simple. There is no art on the pale walls. No one seems to have brainstormed buzzwords, consulted a design firm, or imagined themself to be transformational. What Sichuan Kitchen is, compared to what we had, is simply a bit different and quite good — a quiet and true art too rare here in Portland.
Five spice pork buns.
Of course, Sichuan Kitchen mentions the “authenticity” of their dishes. It’s de rigueur these days for any Asian restaurant to do so. And perhaps these dishes are authentic — apparently, the chef (whose daughter runs the place) arrived straight from a Chengdu banquet hall. If you have ever eaten at one, you are in position to judge if he is keeping it real. But at a time when the cult of populist authenticity has given us Trump and Le Pen, perhaps it’s time to ease up. In wearing the mantle of authenticity lightly, Sichuan Kitchen tastes like sanity.
And that applies to the spices too. This cuisine is known for its heat, but many of the dishes are mild enough to reveal other subtleties. What is notable instead is a distinct lack of sauciness — with many dishes featuring dry meat. The pork bun, for example, lacks sauce or even char-siu tinge of pink. Instead the pale brown pork reveals a subtle sweet and herby flavor. The same five-spice pork is served as an entrée, adorned only by bitter bok choy and rice. The dry fried chicken, diced up into tender pieces, was spicier — with chili heat and pepper along with a streak of ginger. Even the gong bao chicken lets crunchy garlic and peanuts animate the dish without drowning them in sauce.
Chinese beef stew: braised beef noodles with leek and green onions in a spicy broth.
Other dishes paired pleasantly mushy textures with ground meat. The yu-xiang (“fish-style”) eggplant, with lovely fat purple slices, had a nice smoky-sour quality beneath the garlic bite. The mapo tofu had a straightforward saltiness, not unpleasant, rather than a fermented-bean funk.
Only the hottest of pans could give the sour-cabbage its complex and refreshing mix of just-wilted and still-crunchy. A noodle and seaweed salad brought a more intense heat and sour, along with the crunch of daikon.
The menu, like the place itself, is simple, and sticks to Sichuan specialties. It is a pleasure to discover them without being forced to believe you have found in this food the true China. Only the cultural elite cares to eat so authentically — hoping to fill the hole inside left empty by a missing sense of communal belonging. Macron denied the existence of French culture. And of “l’art français” he said, “je ne l'ai jamais vu!" But even he would not deny his nation’s cuisine.
It may seem like we have merely two choices — go back to some primordial authenticity, or en marche to some shallow globalization — but there is a third way. Was it Shestov who insisted that compelling new cultures can be deeply felt? Who said that "with the necessity with which a tree bears its fruit, so do our thoughts, our values,... grow connected and interrelated, mutual witnesses of one will, one kingdom, one sun — as to whether they are to your taste, these fruits of ours..."? Or maybe Cioran said that one too? Or perhaps someone else.
So let's take a break from the question of authenticity in deciding what is to our taste — not because it’s impossible to answer, but because regressive nostalgia has become the most dangerous force of our time. Perhaps we should also stop asking “Is it exceptional?” — the other question the global elite loves to ask of the practices and the people they are preparing the toss aside.
Sichuan Kitchen | 612 Congress St., Portland | 207-536-7226 | Sun – Wed 11:30 am – 9 pm | Thu – Sat, 11:30 am – 10 pm | Entrees around $13 – $20