When people hear about a Sichuan restaurant opening in Wallington, the initial reaction, of course, is to compare it to Chengdu 1 and/or Chengdu 23--two very fine nearby Sichuan restaurants. I'm going to try to stay away from comparison, because it can be sort of pointless. There will always be variations in preparations from restaurant to restaurant, and Lan Sheng can certainly be described in its own terms. As far as the Michelin star business? Well, their sister restaurant in NYC has a Michelin star, and while that might matter, what really matters is what's doin' in Wallington.
And the doin', as it turns out, is mighty good.
First to hit the table were the Sichuan dumplings in oil/vinaigrette. It's not my favorite dish and I never order it (although the missus often does, and I do slurp one or two down). I thought the dumpling sauce was appropriately flavored: spicy, assertive, with a bit of sweetness. My companions noted that there wasn't much in the way of filling. Seemed to me to be done as well as they are anywhere else.
Dan Dan Noodle was up next. Another dish that I rarely order, but we agreed that it was fine. For me, I wish they'd put more vegetable in this dish. I love that green stuff. Dan Dan noodle, for the uninitiated, is like Sichuan bolognese. A wonderful dish don't get me wrong, just something I don't often order.
Tongue and tripe made an appearance. See, now we're talkin'. This is my kind of dish. I order tongue and tripe during every Sichuan meal, at every Sichuan restaurant, forever. Lan Sheng's could have used some more cilantro and "stuff" and less oil. That's just a preference. I've seen this dish served in a bowl of oil, and I've seen it served on plates, relatively oil free. I prefer the latter. But none went to waste. In fact, my esteemed companion was using the oil to season his rice, essentially making a second dish out of it. Smart guy.
The cumin lamb was exactly what I was hoping for, and a bit more. This dish was quite colorful, with lots of cilantro and other "stuff." I really enjoyed this dish, and will be ordering it again.
I believe it was during the inspection of this particular dish (they all underwent autopsies at the hands of my companions) that my friend picked out a dried pepper, held it up, stared at it intently, and proclaimed that it hadn't touched the wok long enough. "See, it's not black. There's no char," he said, with the intensity and gravity of an ax-murderer. Now, I'm a guy who can kinda be overly analytical, but this level of inspection, this commitment to the details, left me speechless. Can't say he was necessarily wrong, but I'll refrain from "deducting a star" for this egregious oversight. Oh, he then ate the pepper--whole.
The house-cured pork with leek was a standout for me. This smoked pork belly dish is a favorite of mine. It's such a simple dish. No Sichuan peppercorns. No sauce. No spice. Just smoked pork and leeks. And it was executed very well at Lan Sheng.
There's a dish called "peasant chicken" or something like that. I have to remember that when a Sichuan restaurant warns you that the chicken has bones, that means that the bones in the dish might have chicken. These dishes are finger-foods, because you cannot just plop the chicken pieces into your mouth and expect to swallow, unless you like swallowing bone. You have to give that little nugget a quick bite test. On the off chance that you meet no resistance, swallow that sucker. If you bite down on bone, remove whatever meat and skin is on that piece with your tongue, and spit out the bone. And if it gives a little bit, it's cartilage, and I say chomp away.
I enjoyed this dish, complex eating method aside. The sauce was spicy, and a bit sweet, with lots of aromatics and herbs and hot peppers. I just wish it wasn't so much work. I said, jokingly, to my friends, because I'm quite the cut-up, that this is a rare example of a vegetarian chicken dish, what with how you end up eating, like, no chicken.
Sauteed snow pea shoots are always expensive, and always delicious. If there's a better sauteed vegetable dish than this, anywhere, please direct me to it. How do they get that sauce to have the mouth-feel of butter? Just wonderful.
They brought out some pumpkin cakes for dessert. Smelled and tasted like zeppoli on the outside, tasted like creamy pumpkin on the inside. My critical friend suggested that it might have been the highlight of the meal. I think he was exaggerating a little, but they were pretty darned tasty. Not that I think of ordering dessert after a meal of chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns.
Service was eager and helpful. It's not a very big place, and it's all fresh and new. I could do without the booths, especially since the benches are movable. Although it's nice to be able to pull in your bench, the people sitting on the other side of that bench might not be too thrilled with that move.
The biggest issue I have with Lan Sheng, and it is enough of an issue that I will likely continue to frequent Chengdu 23 instead, is that they have a liquor license. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with a liquor license. Look at Lotus of Siam, in Las Vegas, for example. They have an epic wine list, with a vast selection of Rieslings and other Thai food-friendly wine. But here in New Jersey, in a land where just about all wine lists are pathetic, you generally don't find anything food-appropriate on lists, especially at restaurants at this level. And Lan Sheng isn't bucking that trend. I believe there was a Chardonnay and a Pinot Grigio (or SB?) by the bottle. No thanks. I'm not paying 20 bucks or whatever it was for a wine that won't go with the food. I'd much prefer to bring a $9 Riesling, just as I do at Chengdu 23.
The menu here is vast. This is real Sichuan cooking. This is no joke. I highly recommend giving this place a shot if you're even vaguely interested in Sichuan food. If you've never had Sichuan food, Lan Sheng is a great place to start.
Lan Sheng: 209 Paterson Ave : Wallington, NJ : 973.773.7100