Dainty Sichuan: Anything But Dainty, Sichuan
It may seem like a tacky thing to do, following Anthony Bourdain around the world. That's not what we normally do, although we may secretly wish it were, but in this case, we couldn't help it. In the episode of No Reservations where Bourdain travels to Melbourne, Australia, he makes a stop at this restaurant, a seemingly nondescript establishment serving standard fare. But it's anything but that.
Located in Melbourne's trendy South Yarra neighborhood on a busy street lined with shops and cafés, Dainty Sichuan is a long way from Chinatown. And that's probably a good thing. While there are many good restaurants in Chinatown, there are also very many mediocre ones serving subpar dim sum and dumplings. So perhaps a little separation is a good thing.
If there's only one thing you can order, it should definitely be the Fish-Flavored Eggplant (AUD 19.80/$20.59), best eaten hot, when its crisp, light exterior and creamy, rich interior meld perfectly with a balanced combination of sweetness and heat from pickled chiles. We traveled halfway around the world to try this, and we were not disappointed.
Other notable items include the Chongqing Chile Chicken (AUD 27.80/$28.91), served on the bone with chile and Sichuan pepper; Ants Climbing the Trees (AUD 19.80/$20.59), a classic Sichuan noodle dish; Hot and Spicy Fish Slices (AUD 29.80/$30.99) served in a bubbling cauldron of chiles and menacingly red cooking liquid, a must; Cumin Lamb Slices (AUD 28.80/$29.95), perhaps a bit strong for those unaccustomed to the flavor of cumin; and the Dry Stir-Fried String Beans (AUD 19.80/$20.59). Those looking for more adventurous picks might want to look at the Spicy Periwinkles (AUD 31.80/$33.07), Baby Cuttlefish with Pickled Chile (AUD 25.80/$26.83), Spicy Cumin Rabbit (AUD 29.80/$30.99), or the Spicy Baby Octopus (AUD 16.80/$17.47).
The only downside to this restaurant is that the prices are just as eye-watering as the chiles in the food — it is quite possibly the most expensive Chinese food you will ever eat. But this is a meal that's meant to be shared among friends at a big table on special occasions, so a bit of a splurge isn't a big deal, and the portions are generous.
So, if you're looking for the mouth-numbing sensation that is characteristic of many Sichuan dishes, you won't be disappointed, as the food here is anything but dainty. And that's a good thing.
Closest tram stops are South Yarra Railway Station/Toorak Rd. (8) and Chapel St./Toorak Rd. (8, 78, 79).