Last year, reports began circulating of an attractive and expensive new restaurant in Flushing with the evocative name of Szechuan Mountain House. So, in early January of this year, a group of spice-loving friends and I set out for the restaurant. It was located in a fancy shopping center on Prince Street north of Roosevelt Avenue, just off a cobbled interior courtyard that wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to find. Our wait on a weeknight was nearly two hours.
Well, a few weeks ago, a branch of the restaurant opened on St. Mark’s just east of Third Avenue in the East Village. It occupies the walk-up space that once held a Grand Sichuan. Though the layout was the same as its predecessor, the interior had been extensively reworked: Tables in front surrounded by blue tiles overlook a colorful goldfish pond, booths along one wall were accented with bamboo, and a rear room was decorated with calligraphy, with bathrooms on a dramatic balcony.
A bowl of free pickled vegetables and chiles greeted us as we sat down and examined the soft-opening menu, which was on a single double-sided page. We relived our Flushing experience by ordering the pork belly and cucumber ($10.95), and it was even better than the first time.
The menu was thankfully crawling with offal; we ordered “strapping cattle throat with spicy red chile oil” ($10.95), which sounds like the work of some unhinged cowboy. It was delicious, though the strips of flayed bovine throat might as well have been squarish white noodles.
The same punning use of ingredients was found in the most spectacular dish of the afternoon, which went by the prosaic name of “beef sliced with enoki mushrooms in sour soup” ($20.95). It came in a handsome stoneware tureen worked with what looked like Roman friezes. The broth was milky and sour, and heat was provided by several types of pickled chiles, which also lent tartness. In the middle of the bowl was a bright red cherry pepper, such as one might find in an Italian restaurant.
The punning part came with the mushrooms, which we teased out in little waving clumps. It was difficult to tell them apart from the bundles of rice noodles, which were tied in the middle like sheaves of wheat. It seemed, as we compared visits, that the East Village Mountain House is better than the one in Flushing, and indeed, one of the best and most interesting new Sichuan restaurants in town.
The mapo ($10.95) was also totally up to snuff, semi-soft cubes in an earthy and oily broth with ground Sichuan peppercorns thrown on top, and not so much meat that it seized the spotlight from the curd. The meal ended agreeably with a small bowl of sweet mung bean soup, and we were once again out in the hurly burly of St Mark’s, marveling at the location.