Way back between late August and early September of 2006 I, and a girl who I had just began dating, decided to go check out this Chinese restaurant that had just opened called Sichuan Bistro. We loved Chinese food, even considered ourselves connoisseurs of it to a point and couldn’t resist trying out this newcomer to Mason. We had no idea what we were getting into.
Fast forward four years to 2010. That girl is now my wife, and Sichuan Bistro has remained unchallenged as our absolute favorite Chinese restaurant ever since that fateful first visit. Considering the history, it seemed only fitting that the inaugural review for our new food blog be Sichuan Bistro.
7888 Mason-Montgomery Rd.
Mason, OH 45040
Sun: 12 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Tues-Thurs: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Fri-Sat: 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m.
|Price Range:||$7 to $15 per entrée|
The first thing you have to know about Sichuan Bistro is that (unless you speak Chinese and are comfortable ordering off-menu) they are the only place around we know that serves authentic Chinese food. If your idea of Chinese food is heavily breaded chicken in a near diabetes inducing syrupy-sweet sauce on top of broccoli, get ready to be surprised. See, all of the dishes traditionally found in Chinese restaurants in this country are, well, only kind of Chinese. Most of them are based off of authentic Chinese dishes, but they’ve all been very, very heavily Americanized. Calling most of the food you get at an average Chinese restaurant in this country authentic is sort of like calling food from Taco Bell authentic Mexican.
Sichuan Bistro, however, stands out from the crowd by offering authentic Sichuan cuisine, without requiring at least passing skills in Mandarin or Cantonese. The restaurant is unassumingly situated in one of the myriad shopping strips littering Mason-Montgomery Road, neighboring a Quizno’s, a Jet’s Pizza, and The Dojo Inc. If you aren’t specifically looking for it there’s a good chance you would drive right by and never know you had passed something special.
Sichuan is a family owned restaurant with the owner, Mama Chef, handling the role of both business owner and chef (as well as cashier and server on occasion). Mama Chef, originally from Chengdu the capital of Sichuan province in the southwest of China, was brought up by professional chef parents and has been a restaurateur for over 15 years.
Sichuan Bistro started with only one small dining room, although in 2009 they acquired the vacant space next door and expanded into it growing both their dining area and their kitchen. The decor is fairly minimalist, with orangey earth tone walls, simple (though comfortable) wooden chairs and tables and a handful of traditional Chinese decorations adorning the walls. They have a fairly equal amount of both small square four seated tables and large round tables that can seat six to eight people. If you’re interested, a small stand of Chinese newspapers sits next to the door. I doubt most people come for the decor though – what’s really important is the food.
This particular visit was made in order to treat family that was visiting from Dayton, Alex and Tim. They had come down around 4 or 5 a.m. to get one of the new iPhone 4′s from the Kenwood Apple store. We had planned on taking them to lunch although, since they didn’t make it into the store until close to 5 p.m., our lunch plans quickly turned to dinner plans.
We were seated at one of the square tables in the corner of the main dining room, and within a few moments the waitress was there to take our drink orders. Everyone ordered water except for me, I decided on green tea. The hot tea at Sichuan Bistro is served in a decent sized tea pot brought to the table along with cups for everyone who ordered tea. Whether it’s four people or just one person, you always get a full pot. I’m partial to loose tea over bagged teas, although I have to admit even though theirs was from a bag it was good.
Caroline and I explained that the portions at Sichuan are intended for sharing, and suggested that Alex and Tim both order off of the traditional Sichuan menu. Caroline and I took care of the spicy requirement – she ordered the Chongqing Ma La Beef and I requested the Spicy Sizzling Beef. Alex and Tim rounded out the order with milder choices, the Roast Duck and Lamb With Green Onions respectively.
Our dishes were brought out in succession, although we didn’t begin eating until all of them were present. The greatest spectacle is delivery of the Spicy Sizzling Beef from the kitchen. Amid great clouds of steam a generous helping of onions, beef and a variety of peppers seated on a sizzling steak iron is brought out to your table. Anyone who gets a face-full of the steam is almost instantly overwhelmed with the oils from the peppers and myself, my dining companions and the couple sitting one table over were sent into mild coughing fits. There was no need for apologies though, as the coughing was quickly replaced with smiles and the couple asked us the name of the offending dish, assuring us that would be their first choice next time they came.
The sizzling beef is sliced thin and, although cooked through, was actually fairly tender. Both beef and vegetables alike are thoroughly coated in chili oil, and an assortment of hot peppers, both green and red, are nestled in among the onions and sweeter peppers. The dish is extremely hot, although it avoids the common trap of heat-for-heat’s-sake and presents it’s spicy kick in a subtly flavorful way. One of my favorite parts was the small dried red chilies which, while texturally a little odd, are packed with equal amounts of flavor and heat.
The Chongqing Ma La Beef, which Caroline ordered, is nearly as spicy as the sizzling beef although because of one special ingredient you may not realize. ‘Ma La’ roughly translates out to ‘numbingly spicy’ and reflects the use of an ingredient unique to Sichuan cooking that is present in nearly all the dishes at Sichuan Bistro – the Sichuan Peppercorn. While not actually from the pepper family, Sichuan peppercorns act as a very mild anesthetic, giving the tongue and lips a pleasant tingly numbing sensation.
In the Ma La Beef, a fairly simple dish of chili oil doused beef atop shredded cabbage, the use of the peppercorns makes for an interesting experience of spicy heat shifting to tingling numbness rolling back into heat all mingling with the flavor of the beef.
Tim’s order of Lamb With Green Onions was the first dish to find itself empty. Whether that’s because everyone liked it the most, or because the spiciness of the other dishes made it hard to eat them quite as fast, I’m not sure. Regardless, I quite liked it. The lamb, though more cooked than I generally like my lamb, remained both tender and flavorful. The sauce that covered the lamb and vegetables was flavorful but still fairly delicate. It had a unique flavor that I couldn’t quite place, and didn’t suffer from over-sugared sweetness of the more Americanized Chinese sauces.
The Roast Duck that Alex ordered was equally good. He said that duck was one of, if not, his favorite dishes and he was extremely pleased with the duck at Sichuan. The skin was nice and crispy providing a little resistance before giving way to the more tender meat. It was served with a plum sauce for dipping that was easily one of the best I’ve ever had. My sole complaint with the duck (and really any duck) was the presence of all the small bones in the meat. They’re easy to miss and pulling them out of your mouth after you’ve sucked the meat off can come across a little rude depending on whom you’re dining with.
All in all it was an extremely good meal. The bill, with tip, came to around $50 which considering the quality I think is a pretty reasonable price for four full stomachs and enough leftovers for breakfast for two.
Verdict: You Should Go
Sichuan Bistro is the only place we know to go for authentic Chinese cuisine, or at least Sichuan and Shanghai cuisine. Sichuan Bistro is also the only place we know where they actually use Sichuan peppercorns. The quality of the food is excellent, and the prices are reasonable but not cheap. It may be a bit of a drive for those who live downtown, but it’s well worth it.