I didn’t think I could love Sichuan boiled fish with pickled vegetables more than I already do until I tasted Guan Fu’s version. Here the body and flavor of what is typically a rather thin sauce is broadened with a stock made from fish bones. Fresh green chiles provide a heat held in thrilling check by the sourness. The broth is too intensely salty to qualify as soup, the server explained, but I still drank as much of it as I could handle.
The kitchen gives mapo tofu, that old war horse, a new lease on life. While the chile heat is not full-bore, the fermented beans and other components are. Shimmering over jiggly mounds of white tofu is a mapo sauce as deeply flavored as any I’ve tasted.
Cabbage is fried with pork and fresh chiles, but the appeal of the dish is the way the invisible presence of Sichuan peppercorns sets your mouth and lips tingling.
And there is hardly any heat at all in the “eggplant with iron plate.” Traditionally made at home for Sichuan spring festivals, the dish was new to me, and I was very glad to make its acquaintance. Slices of eggplant are slit open, stuffed like dumplings with a pork-eggplant filling, then closed up, battered and fried. They are served in a pan kept over a small flame. The sauce that coated them was swimming with scallions and a few lengths of dried chile, but it drew its energy from the tension between sweet and sour.
Not that the kitchen avoids spices. One reason to keep your wits about you while eating at Guan Fu is that you can’t always tell when extreme heat is about to rain down like Judgment Day.
One of the hottest things on the menu, the Guan Fu-style cuttlefish salad, contains almost no red chiles. Its ability to shock and amaze comes from fresh green chiles that are roasted until black, skinned and made into a sauce that tastes almost Mexican. Barely cooked cuttlefish are scored with a knife so they twist up and look like little pine cones. That potent green sauce insinuates itself into every one of their crevices.
This is one of many Guan Fu dishes that are rarely seen in New York, if ever. The menu is about 40 glossy pages long and full of color photographs of coral groupers, crystal crabs and other sea animals. In some parts it looks like a children’s book, although the kids won’t like the way the story ends for the soft-shell turtle.
If you order one, a live specimen is brought out for inspection and reappears a short time later in pieces, mingled with potatoes, green beans…