Secluded Sichuan delight
11 Holland St
Ph: 385 2520
No licence as yet
Open for lunch and dinner, 7 days
Wine list: N/A
Price range of mains: $10.50 to $26.50
Cost: $60 for two.
Despite its central location, many Wellingtonians have never heard of Holland St, a quiet cul-de-sac of apartments and warehouses.
Hidden down the far end is Tiger, a brand new, deliciously esoteric Sichuan restaurant you would be unlikely to stumble across by accident.
You have to press a button before the front door slides open, giving the place the air of a secret society.
The clientele, owner Guodong Sun tells me, is 85 per cent Chinese; offal being the house specialty, vegetarians need not apply.
The main room is tastefully furnished with traditional Chinese chairs, red lanterns and parasols, but down a side passage is a series of ever more garish inner sanctums, all padded with sound-proofing and lined with imitation cobra skins.
Ostensibly these are karaoke rooms, though I could also imagine the top dons of the Flying Dragons holing up there to enjoy Sichuan Twice-cooked Pork (hui gou rou), a dish formerly eaten with ritualistic regularity at meetings of Sichuan's notorious secret societies.
Thin slices of pork are steamed and then stir-fried until they curl up like old-fashioned Chinese lamp cups. Zouzzed up with chilli-bean paste, soy, sugar, cloud ear fungus and fermented black beans, it's an authentic delight.
Another Sichuan classic, also not seen previously in Wellington, is Minced Meat Fried Beans (rou mou jiang dou) in which round green beans are partially fermented for a few days in a spicy brine before being wok-tossed with just a little pork mince.
As for the nasty bits, take your pick between tripe, heart, trotters, chicken gristle and Stir Fried Chopped Entrails of Sheep.
I passed on the last (entrails being too far down the wrong end of the body for my taste), but Sichuan Spicy Tripes was most delectable - about the mildest tripe I've ever tasted. It was springy in texture, certainly, but not at all barnyardy in flavour and, despite the name, not so much fiery hot as redolent of sesame oil. (I did have to correct my guest, however, who thought they were strips of savoy cabbage.)
Tea Scented Chicken Gristle is less outlandish than it sounds: the chef commandeers all chickens entering the kitchen and slices through the connective tissue between each leg and the torso, including a little chicken meat with each cut. These are deep-fried, along with green tea leaves, until crisp, the point of the dish being that gelatinous crunch so beloved of the Chinese palate. There's a spicy zing to the coating, given extra sparkle, I'm almost certain, with a good pinch of chef's cocaine - monosodium glutamate - that magic white powder which so offends the puritanical sensibilities of health nazis in the West.
If you have a penchant for pigs' trotters, the Spicy Pork Feet in Bamboo Tube will come as a revelation. Although traditionally cooked in bamboo, short lengths of trotter are here steamed for three hours in a pressure cooker until they puff into a soft, squidgy mass - the perfect carrier for the copious chillies, spices and aromatics cooked with them.
This being Wellington, not Chengdu, Tiger's menu has ample sops to the squeamish.
Thai Prawns will offend nobody, being fried and served over sweet chilli sauce, while the Orange Beef here is rather more subtly flavoured than other versions around town.
There's also Sweet and Sour Pork (which happens to be Sichuanese in origin) and, for the truly meek at heart, deep-fried spring rolls and chicken and cream corn soup.
As the night wore on, the wisdom of locking away the karaoke singers in padded cells became apparent. For despite the sound-proofing, we could still hear the droning of one singer, so hopelessly flat that even the waiting staff joined in with our laughter.
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
Beef Brisket with Chili Pot
Between the offal specialties and the boring old standards are dishes like Beef Brisket with Chili Pot, which should appeal to all palates. Slow-cooked with potatoes and served with its braising juices over thick, squidgy noodles, it has that deeply-rounded beefy flavour only found in a secondary cut. Despite the many whole chillies sprinkled over the top, it's not scarily hot.
The Dominion Post