Szechuan cuisine, synonymous with 麻辣 a numbing spiciness, by 3 generations of chefs: In 1958, the late Chen Kenmin, a Szechuan native, started Akasaka Szechuan Restaurant, or popularly known as Shisen Hanten 四川饭店 to Japanese, in Japan. He passed down his skills to his son, Chen Kenichi, who is the longest serving Iron Chef in the Japan series, winning 14 consecutive matches. Nicknamed the “Szechuan Sage,” his food emphasizes on the seven tastes of Szechuan cuisine: sour, pungent, hot, sweet, bitter, aromatic, and salty. Chen Kenichi, in turn, passes the baton to his son, Chen Kentaro. And this is Shisen Hanten by Chen Kentaro.
Right from the start, the restaurant is impressive, and vast: very tall ceilings with beautiful chandeliers of different sizes crowded at a corner, hanging at different heights, overlooking the city. A beautiful ikebana epergne stands unostentatiously. The decor is gorgeous.
Set lunch menu ($42+ or $50+), and set dinners ($68/$98/$138) available. But since the specialties of Chen weren’t on the set menus, we ordered a la carte.
On a scale of 0-10, my tolerance for spice is a 3. But even I was taken aback by how much I liked the food. Usually spicy food numbs the tongue and you cannot taste anything else. But at Shisen Hanten, the spiciness is just part of the complex and evolving tastes of the food. The die die must order, mapo tofu 陈麻婆豆腐 ($20/$30/$40), was silky, with a delicate balance of heat and saltiness from fermented beans. You have never eaten mapo tofu till you eat this one.
On the first sip of the broth from another must order, spicy soup noodle 担担面 ($10/bowl) was the taste of lard, liquid lard, which evolved to a sweetness and fragrance of peanut, and finally, the heat kicked in. The noodle, done in a Chinese soggy way, none of the Italian al dente, had a delicious sweet eggy scent that stood on its own against the exciting and strong broth.
Every table seemed to have a pot of stewed fish fillet 水煮鱼 ($26/ $39/ $52), and this was the spiciest food we ordered. Before the slow-rising heat hits you like Solange, there is a plethora of complex tastes, salty, pungent and sweet. And you can still taste the freshness of the fish and a milky cod-like scent. Tip: fish the Szechuan pepper out before eating, because if you bite in it, the pungency will make you cringe.
The beef stir-fried in Szechuan peppers 孜然牛柳 ($28/ $42/ $56) had a strange and wondrous texture: the outside seemed to be deep-fried and when I bit into it, its texture was like tou pok, but ooh so tender. I had never tasted beef done this way before.
For the sake of variety, we ordered a non-spicy item, stir-fried king crab and Hokkaido scallop with yuzu sauce ($36/ $52/ $72). While my friends and I agreed that this non-spicy dish wasn’t as flavorful or delicious as the spicy ones, it acted as a nice finish, a cooling calm-me-down. And after the spicy food excited the tastebuds, I could taste the sweetness of the crab and scallops even better.
Two areas of improvement: The food took some time to come; better presentation for the food required.
An incident that happened: My friends were late, I was hungry, so I ordered a spicy noodle first. When they came, they ordered another spicy noodle. But this second bowl of noodle didn’t come. We asked for it. The server checked and thought we only ordered a bowl. This was a miscommunication, I suppose, and shouldn’t reflect on the excellent service. The servers were considerate, prompt, funny, informative, amicable and cheerful. They made me feel at home.
This is the third restaurant that achieves a 4/5 from us this year and it is the best one yet. I highly recommend it, even if you can’t take spice. Hey, I saw many angmohs there. If angmohs can do it, so can you. We spent about $170 for three persons.
Written by A. Nathanael Ho.