There is some truth to the adage that a slow and steady pace wins the race.
In our culture that champions the rare, the elite, or the virtuoso, it is far too easy to overlook the methodical, the reliable and the consistent. In the world of dining, we all have our tried and true favourites, those workhorse establishments that deliver dependable, if predictable, results time after time. I have a number of such go-to destinations to which I return whenever I want proven and steady fare. I take comfort in knowing that after a hit and miss, twelvecourse chef's taster menu at the hippest new joint in town, I can return, humbled and almost apologetic, to my local burger spot for a solid meal.
Still, there remains a latent yearning shelved somewhere in my psyche, covered by a precariously shallow dusting of selfdiscipline and reason, that keeps me ever-hopeful that the next new restaurant I try will reveal the work of a culinary master who will unreservedly reward my hedonistic inclinations.
It was with these duplicitous musings in mind that I recently visited Wonderful Szechuan Restaurant in Lynn Valley, a new entry to the North Shore dining scene that sets high expectations with its very name, let alone its promise of Szechuan fare, easily my favourite regional culinary style in the powerhouse arsenal of traditional Chinese food.
It is important to preface any further comments with a couple of important facts: firstly, Wonderful Szechuan has an ambitious menu of more than 100 dishes, of which I sampled a mere six. It is possible that a deeper overview of the menu would yield a different impression on a second visit. Secondly, I hold Szechuan cuisine in exceptionally high regard and have, on countless occasions in many different cities, enjoyed some extraordinary meals in the Szechuan style.
Accompanying me for an early evening meal was my son, Mini Me, so nicknamed for a striking paternal resemblance which, I continually reassure everyone, he is bound to outgrow. Mini has cultivated a remarkable palate for a sixyear-old and has a tolerance for spicy food that would put many travelled grown men to shame.
We consulted our server on the menu and asked her to recommend dishes that best exhibited either Wonderful's unique house style or Szechuan cuisine generally. Without hesitation, she set us on a course of six dishes that covered many of the major categories of the menu.
Our meal began with a large bowl of hot and sour soup, a thick, glistening, reddish broth replete with delicate slivers of bamboo, carrot, tofu, and scallion, as well as morsels of egg white and chicken. The flavour of the soup struck a nice balance between the sour vinegar and spicy chili, though this latter was a touch too reserved for my taste and certainly didn't put Mini to the test at all on the heat scale. The viscous, velvety sheen of the broth was a telltale sign of the use of MSG, an ingredient that would feature heavily throughout our meal. Upon later enquiry, our server told us that the kitchen will accommodate those with an intolerance to MSG by preparing dishes without it.
Next up was the House Special Ginger Beef and a plate of Szechuan Style Spicy Green Beans. Both dishes were generously portioned and were far and away the tastiest of the entire meal. The beef was sliced into thin, bite-sized strips that were coated in a light and crispy batter loaded with fresh and fragrant ginger flavour. The string beans retained a subtle crunch and were piled high with crushed garlic. While both dishes contained whole, dried chili peppers to facilitate self-administered heat adjustment, it must be said that the signature spiciness of Szechuan cuisine was largely lacking throughout our meal.
The mountain of vegetable chow mein that followed was adequately tasty and proficiently spiced, though it was wanting of more vegetable content, while a dish of scallops and prawns in spicy garlic sauce, which had been billed by our server as a house special, featured a thick, oddly sweet sauce that masked the nominal seafood content.
A final dish of fried eggplant in spicy chili garlic sauce was jam-packed with eggplant and onions and was a surprise hit with Mini, although he correctly observed that this dish and several of the others generated a large pool of oil on the bottom of the plate, suggesting the copious use of frying as a cooking method.
To my mind Wonderful Szechuan Restaurant falls into the workhorse camp of culinary establishments, its dishes competently prepared though lacking in the sort of virtuosity that will have you sending your friends and family there for years to come. Wonderful Szechuan Restaurant is located at 1238 Ross Road in Lynn Valley. Phone: 604-988-9927.
Chris Dagenais served as a manager for several restaurants downtown and on the North Shore. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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