Szechuan II (Roseville, MN)

At the end of last week’s review of an excellent dinner at Demera I noted that this week’s review would be of a disappointing Sichuan meal. This is that meal, eaten at Szechuan (in Roseville). I should say right off the bat, however, that it was not by any means a bad meal; it was, however, disappointing on account of some changes in the menu and how it was presented on their website when we decided to go eat there. This menu presentation raised our expectations in a specific way and those were far from met. Anyone unencumbered by those expectations—which would be almost anyone else eating there—would have far less to complain about. What am I talking about? Read on to find out and then keep reading to see what we actually ate and what we thought of it. 

We last ate at Szechuan almost four three years ago. In my review of that meal I noted that while we enjoyed the meal fine it was nothing that for us warranted the extra 20 minutes each way drive over going to Grand Szechuan (a restaurant that is better to boot). And since we rarely have cause to be in the vicinity of Roseville (most of our Indian and Korean grocery shopping is now done in Bloomington as well), we’d not had cause to go back. All of this changed a couple of weeks ago when I landed on their website, mostly to see if they were still in business. They were and the website proclaimed a “reopening” in October 2017 with an all-new menu. I clicked on the menu button and was greeted by a quite different menu than the one we’d seen in 2014. More exciting was the fact that this menu had a section titled “West Coast Szechuan Cuisine”. Why was this exciting? Well, Sichuan is not on the coast and it’s western border is even further away from the sea than its eastern border. Bad geography? The answer I was pretty sure lay elsewhere.

This section of the menu, you see, featured/s a number of dishes that are also on the menus of the pre-eminent Sichuan restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley outside Los Angeles (by definition, the pre-eminent Sichuan restaurants in the US): Chengdu Taste and Szechuan Impression, in particular  Refreshing golden soup, fish with rattan pepper, street corner potato strips, bo-bo skewers, steamed pork belly in rice flour: all of these are dishes not found anywhere else in the Twin Cities but very popular in the SGV. Aha, I thought, “West Coast” here probably refers to California, and their new menu must draw on the new wave of Sichuan cuisine that arrived there a few years ago. Perhaps, I dared dream, they even have a new chef from the SGV? Accordingly, I got a group of friends together to go investigate. Alas, reality proved a bit deflating.

We ordered a number of dishes from the new menu. However, this menu was not easy to access. The menu I’d seen on the website was not the menu available at the restaurant. Some of the dishes were distributed among the categories in the new restaurant menu but some were missing. As luck would have it, one of our friends had to leave early for an airport run and so asked for a takeout menu—this takeout menu (see below) had the “West Coast Szechuan Cuisine” section in it. We got four dishes from that menu and two standard dishes for the boys to eat. In case you’re wondering why our order was so uncharacteristically small, it’s because we were a smaller group than usual. What did we eat?

  • Dan dan noodles. This was for the boys and we accordingly asked for it to be non-spicy. It was mad non-spicy but the boys didn’t care for it because it was far more vinegary than the version they’ve grown to love at Grand Szechuan. I, however, loved it—both the vinegariness and the more al dente noodles—and if I’d known the brats would scorn it, I would have got it properly spicy and probably loved it more.
  • Street corner potato strips. We just loved the punchy, al dente verson of these at Szechuan Impression but were brought down to reality by what arrived: regulation french fries tossed with some hot peppers and dusted with a bit of Sichuan peppercorn. The boys, however, hoovered these up.
  • Green beans. From their regular menu, these were quite good.
  • Refreshing golden soup with fish. The parade of disappointments continued here. While this was tasty enough, it was a pale shadow compared to the glorious version we ate at Szechuan Impression a couple of years ago. Not bad at all on on its own terms though—a lot of fish and glass noodles hiding in the broth. It’s not a spicy soup, by the way: tangy and slightly sweet with quite a bit of pumpkin.
  • Bo-bo chicken skewers: I had the wild hope that these would be related to the glorious skewers we ate at Chengdu Taste in December but no. They’re presented instead in a somewhat generic hot Sichuan broth (which also has noodles hiding in it). And while there’s pieces of chicken swimming in the broth, the skewers themselves feature a wide variety of things: beef, tripe, fishballs, kelp, shrimp, tofu etc. Again, not bad on its own terms, and probably a fun dish to get with beer if you’re in a group of six or more.
  • Boiled fish with rattan pepper & tofu. At both Chengdu Taste and Szechuan Impression this is a dish of fish in a clear broth that’s tangy and spicy. Here it was more like the regulation Sichuan boiled fish in spicy broth. Tasty enough but not what we were expecting/hoping it would be.
  • Stir-fried chilli pork trotters. We got this because they didn’t have the steamed pork belly in rice flour, and it was the one dish that was just not very good. A nondescript stir-fry of hacked up pork trotters with veg (and seemingly a lot of red food colouring).

For pictures of the restaurant and the food, click on an image below to launch a slideshow. Scroll down for notes on service, price and the continuing, evolving saga of their website menu.

Service, I am sorry to say, was a bit farcical. They had these young servers who seem to have been hired solely on the basis of their native English fluency. Our server was entirely clueless: he did not know the menu and barely knew what he’d brought for us. He couldn’t answer any question about the new items on the menu. An adjoining table saw our skewer dish being set down and asked him what it was and he couldn’t say: I had to explain. Later another table asked what an ingredient in one of their dishes was: from across the room we could tell they were leeks but I’d be surprised if he knew what leeks are. Well, the food came out reasonably quickly, at any rate, and it was not hard to track him down for anything we needed. The restaurant itself remain attractive enough—Miller Lite decor notwithstanding. I’m less sure about some of their new serve-ware, which seem really unwieldy—especially the badly designed dishes in which they served the soup and the skewers.

All of this came to about $130 with tax and tip (I think this included an order of potstickers that our friends ate while waiting for us—we had some drama en route to the restaurant that I won’t go into here). Which also felt like it was a bit too expensive for what the meal was.

I’ll reiterate again that it was by no means a bad meal. If it were the closest Sichuan restaurant to us we’d eat there often. But there are three we like better that are closer, and the one we like best is quite a bit closer. For this reason it’s unlikely we’ll get back to Szechuan anytime soon. It would be different if their “West Coast Szechuan Cuisine” had turned out to be what I’d hoped it would. Alas, it appears that while they’ve put a number of new dishes on, their kitchen’s current ability to execute on those dishes is limited. And, by the way, the menu on their website has now been updated again: the menu I saw that enticed us to go has been replaced by a digital version of the darker paper menu we were given at the restaurant. As to whether this is the final incarnation of this menu, I don’t know.

In a couple of weeks I’ll have a review of another Sichuan meal, one we liked quite a bit more. Coming next from the Twin Cities food beat: Japanese (not sushi, thankfully).

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