The Wine Cellar: Restoring true Sichuan at How Lee in Squirrel Hill leads to strong pairings
Just a generation ago, American-Chinese restaurants typically lumped dishes arising out of China's spicy Sichuan cuisine within the general menu. Most menus featured some mild variation of the Sichuan tradition's famous preparation, Kung Po Chicken. Americans snapped up the tempting mélange of stir-fried chicken chunks, peanuts, vegetables and chile peppers.
Today, most Chinese-American restaurants still offer the familiar standby dishes. But some, especially those in urban areas near international universities such as Carnegie Mellon, have evolved. They offer authentic Sichuan delicacies in response to demand from an influx of Chinese nationals and increasingly knowledgeable American consumers.
Such is the case at the new How Lee Chinese Restaurant in Squirrel Hill. This BYOB gem offers two menus: a traditional “Americanized” Chinese version and an “Authentic Sichuan” version. The latter presents intriguing wine-pairing opportunities — especially for those with adventurous palates.
On a recent evening, youthful Asian diners filled the tables at How Lee's bright and compact dining room. The customers' animated conservations and laughter filled the room. Family-style servings of authentic Sichuan dishes such as Tea-Smoked Duck, Chili Hot Pots, Spicy Prawns, Sichuan style fish and sautéed Chinese greens graced the tables.
Several key flavoring ingredients characterize authentic Sichuan dishes and determine wine compatibilities. Intensely spicy Sichuan red peppers and chile oil made from the same fiery peppers head the list. Other key flavors include garlic, ginger, star anise, onions, green onions, celery, sweet bean paste and aromatic fresh herbs.
Dishes sporting “one pepper” ratings are characterized as “spicy and hot” while “three pepper” dishes are “very hot.”
Trust me when I say that “one pepper” dishes deliver all the spiciness that a novice to authentic Sichuan cuisine might care to experience.
The following wines stand up perfectly to the bold flavors:
In the classic Sichuan Spicy Prawns, prominent star anise notes lend hints of crunchy liquorices to punctuate and balance intense spiciness from copious amounts of red peppers. The breaded and stir-fried prawns add delicious, savory flavors. The dish pairs beautifully with the 2009 Michel Fonné Muscat “Tradition,” Alsace, France (Luxury 36857; $19.99). Even though this terrific white has a few years in the bottle, its potent aromas and balanced flavors provide counterpoint and refreshment to the spicy prawns.
Prominent ripe red grapefruit and apple aromas lead to grapefruit and citrus flavors. Bright acidity balances the wine's fruity, off-dry finish. The wine cools and resuscitates the palate perfectly as the meal unfolds. Highly recommended.
During preparation of the classic Tea Smoked Duck, a rub of Sichuan red peppers, ginger, garlic and salt brings outs the meat's natural flavors. Then, marinating in Chinese wine augments juiciness before smoking the duck over black tea leaves and camphor. Final steaming and deep frying seals the juicy, flavorful meat with a crispy exterior. Yum!
The dish goes nicely with the 2012 A to Z Rosé, Oregon (Luxury 37164; $11.99). The wine's striking light-red color presents generous red fruit aromas of strawberries with peach and citrus accents. Similar strawberry and peach flavors follow in the glass, balanced with zippy acidity through a soft, yet refreshing, fruity finish. Recommended.
The Sichuan Chili Pot with fish filets offers a popular communal dish. Served in the middle of the table, the pot still bubbles and teams with fiery red peppers and tender, lightly breaded fish. It delivers a colorful and potent, yet irresistibly delicious, dish.
Pair it with the fruity 2011 Cave des Producteurs de Vouvray, Vouvray “Les Lys,” France (Luxury 32765; $10.99). This efficiently managed, modern cooperative uses Chenin Blanc grapes — or Pineau de Loire grapes, as they are known locally — produce a delicately scented and full-flavored wine.
Pear and peach-blossom aromas lead to peach, pear and orange flavors. And, like any well-made vouvray, the wine shows vibrant energy and balance with its uplifting acidity. A soft kiss of sweetness carries through the pleasant finish. Recommended.
Dave DeSimone is the wine writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.