It’s Chinese New Year! The time of family gatherings, lots of feasting, drinking and all round celebrations of another auspicious year ahead. This year, for our reunion dinner with Sean’s parents, we went to the home of the “father of Szechuan cuisine”, Shisen Hanten. It’s the most celebrated Chinese restaurant on the Michelin Guide clinching a coveted two stars. But don’t be confused by its name. That comes with a little bit of history.
Akasaka Szechuan Restaurant is known popularly in Japan as Shisen Hanten. The establishment was started in 1958 by the late Chen Kenmin, who is lauded as Japan’s father of Szechuan cooking.
Born in the Szechuan province of China, Chen Kenmin perfected his craft in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China before settling in Yokohama, Japan. After becoming a culinary legend in Japan, he passed down his legacy to his eldest son Chen Kenichi, who went on to become one of Japan’s most celebrated iron chefs.
Nicknamed the”Szechuan Sage”, Chef Kenichi went on to open acclaimed restaurants around the world, dishing up the Szechuan classics embodying seven basic flavours -sour, pungent, hot, sweet, bitter, aromatic, and salty.
To be honest, I’d never really been a huge fan of Szechuan cuisine. I found it too overwhelming and don’t usually go out of my way to seek it out. But perhaps we just haven’t had good renditions of the cuisine, and we were very excited to find out how this place could educate us.
We decided to go a la carte to try out some of their signature dishes.
First up, 海鮮酸辣汤 or Szechuan Hot and Sour Seafood Soup ($15 /person).
I’d expected an explosion of strong sour and spicy flavours on the tastebuds. But this was surprisingly delicate! An excellent balance of savoury, sour, spicy and that tiny tinge ofnumbness that tickles the tip of the tongue. Already, I’d been proven wrong about how heavy and rich the food was going to be.
We also tried another intriguing soup dish — Foie Gras Chawanmushi with Crab Roe Soup蟹黄鹅肝汤 ($36 /person).
To be honest, I’d expected an actual egg custard, but it was actually bits of chawanmushi mixed in with the starchy crab roe soup. Delicious rich flavour, but nothing too spectacular. I was more impressed with the classic hot and sour soup.
And now, for the true testament of Szechuan Cooking — Stir-fried prawn with chilli sauce 干烧明虾 ($44).
Every Szechuan chef worth his salt must master the classic Szechuan Prawn dish. I was surprised to find that it tasted really similar to the Singapore Chili Crab sauce! It had a tomato-ey base to it and was sweet, sour, spicy and savoury in equal measure. Once again, great balance and wonderfully addictive with some deep fried man tous.
Overall, the service was great, and we loved the high-ceilings and gorgeous chandeliers. The sommelier also made great recommendations for a delicious wine to go with the rather spicy meal.
This next one is for the meat-lovers, and quite a hit with all of us —
Sweet and sour fried Kurobuta pork in black vinegar 黑醋咕咾肉 ($38)
I loved everything about this dish, most notably, that syrupy, tangy vinegar sauce that just coated every tender deep fried pork cube beautifully. Textures and flavours were all on point with this one, and I’m not even a huge pork fan. Double thumbs up.
Another ubiquitous Szechuan staple has got to be the spicy beancurd. Here’s the “Chen’s Mapo Doufu” 陳麻婆豆腐 ($26).
Again, I expected something fierce to hit me. And it never came. Despite how devilish it looked, the flavours were actually very mild. What really stood out was the smooth texture of the tofu, with the chili oil taking a backstage. Skillfully done, although I prefer Mapo Tofu with a little more flavour other than spice alone.
To fill us up a little, we decided to try two different kinds of noodles. First, we had the Stewed egg noodle with lobster in superior stock 上汤龙虾焖生面 ($34 /person).
Lovely lobster flavours with a thin egg noodles cooked al dente so as to soak up more of the rich broth. Simple and delightful.
This was followed by Chen’s Original Spicy Dry Noodle 正宗担担面 ($14 /person).
I actually found this one very addictive. There was something about the sauce that really got me going for more. Also loved the chewiness of the noodles that combined with the tender minced meat and spring onions really elevated what looks like a really simple dish.
And finally, it was time for something sweet to end the meal. It being New Year period, we ordered these Crispy Nian Gao (4 pcs) 脆皮炸鸳鸯年糕 ($12) off of the festive menu.
I usually have nian gao fried with sesame seeds, or dipped in egg. But this was something totally different. In an almost tempura-style, the slightly salty, crispy batter really complemented the soft, chewy texture of the cake and brought out its light sweetness.
And finally, being a big fan of almond desserts, I had to try their Cold Almond Pudding 杏仁豆腐($8.50 /person).
The texture is a lot like a panna cotta with an exquisite almond scent. All in all a fitting end to a meal similarly balanced and delicate despite Szechuan cuisine’s reputation for being robust and fiery. I do appreciate it when my preconceived notions of food are challenged and for that I say it was well worth the visit.
And of course, what is a great meal without the best company? Happy Chinese New Year to all celebrating.