As I said before, restaurant choices for this trip were basically made to tick off long-standing items on the wishlist. Dainty Sichuan is a place that has always been on the radar when in Melbourne, but I could never muster the motivation needed to travel all the way to South Yarra to cross it off the list. Especially with nothing else to see there. At least Fitzroy has lots of Melbourne Girls (TM) to look at.
Anyway, it probably would have been another trip that ended in a lack of rectal burn if it weren't for a bunch of Big Time Chefs (TM) basically losing their shit (in many ways) over Dainty Sichuan during the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival earlier this month, as well as Bourdain heaping praise on it during the recent No Reservations episode on Melbourne. So I had to go, if only to see how it measured up to my beloved Red Chilli outlets in Sydney.
This sort of restaurant isn't designed for a solo diner, so I knew I was going to have to over order and over eat, a worrying prospect when szechuan food is involved.
First to hit the table is the lunch special size of mapo tofu, which is thankfully probably half the size of the normal.
I'm a big fan of mapo tofu, and this is probably the best rendition of it I have ever had the pleasure to eat. And by probably, I mean definitely. The tofu is the perfect firmness: soft enough to be silky on the tongue with the sauce, but firm enough to pick up with chopsticks. Mapo tofu is all about the chilli out and hot bean sauce. Dainty Sichuan's is so good it breaks your heart. There's depth to the heat (which isn't over the top), distinction to the hot beans. Fermented black beans stud the dish every now and then, adding a burst of salty, mealy goodness. Fresh szechuan pepper and finely chopped shallots are added too, and stand on their own instead of falling in line with the other flavours, like many mapo tofus tend to do.
I didn't think Dainty Sichuan was going to match the hype, but eating that mapo tofu makes me feel like Jack Black in High Fidelity, in that scene where they get the demo tape of the skaters. "It's... really fucking good..."
At around $10 for the lunch special, this has to be one of the best meals in Melbourne, and on a normal day enough for a big, satisfying meal.
But I've been so absorbed in the mapo tofu that I've neglected the two other dishes I ordered that are sitting on the table.
Smoked pork with bamboo shoot is one of my favourite dishes of all time, and one that Red Chilli NAILS. Here, though, it's not as good. The smoked pork is packed with flavour, but is sliced thin and fried like bacon, with a similarly huge saltiness. Red Chilli's version has the pork being steamed I think), which allows the beautifully flavourful pork fat to come out and play. The bamboo here is also a bit of a non-event, with it being a bit dry. Red Chilli's is fresh, crunchy, sweet and the perfect partner for the smokey, fatty pork.
At this stage it's 1 dish apiece for each restaurant, with the deciding vote going to century egg with chilli capsicums. Red Chilli does century egg with either tofu or chopped green chilli, Dainty does it with either the aforementioned capsicums or tofu. There are differences to the dish, like Dainty's century egg being milder than Red Chilli's, and the spicy capsicums providing a nice smokey, vinegary shield to the potent egg, where the chillis in Red Chilli's dish are there to add heat and the earthy flavour of raw chilli. Overall though, I call it a draw. Both versions are excellent, Dainty's for it's piquant, milder flavours, Red Chilli's for it's relentless heat and earthy flavour.
I can see what the fuss is about with Dainty Sichuan: this is some damn fine, authentic Szechuan food.
For those chefs that went to MFWF and loved it: when you're in Sydney, hit up Red Chilli, it's just as good.