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Indicating to the staff at Alexandria’s Tempt Asian Cafe that you are a veteran of Sichuan cooking and otherwise brave of spirit in matters of the table is not quite the ethno-culinary equivalent of the secret handshake you might hope for.
The first time I ordered, I did so from the Chinese portion of the menu, pointing to a entree of fish with sour mustard. To judge by my waitress’s frown, I was committing a very grave mistake. She directed me to a tamer-sounding fish dish—a dish not marked with a chili pepper. I countered by ordering something even more unusual-sounding, grilled fish with cold rice gluten. Her eyes bulged in laughing surprise. I was crazy; I was a crazy man. But it didn’t matter, because they were out of the dish.
At least my upping of the ante persuaded her: If I was willing to try something so beyond the pale, as it were, I could probably be trusted with the fish with sour mustard.
The value of persistence was brought home to me minutes later. The dish was fabulous: hunks of tender, sweet white fish tossed with still-chewy pickled greens, bands of green onions, and several dozen tiny red finger peppers that had been slit open to release their heat.
The reluctance on the part of the staff may be explained, at least to some degree, by the fact that it is still getting accustomed to chef Peter Chang, who before coming to Tempt Asian headed up the operation at China Star, in Fairfax. Little by little, he has been phasing in his own dishes, in the process turning a small, handsomely appointed place that once turned out genericized Chinese-American fare into a Sichuan standard-bearer. Not everything will wow you (frying, in particular, is inconsistent), but enough will—the cooking is more consistent, more varied, more graceful, and more complex than what Chang was turning out at China Star, with less of the tendency of dishes to leave behind the shimmery, crimson pool of chili oil that even the best Sichuan cooking can succumb to.
Anyone who thinks that Sichuan is synonymous merely with chili peppers should be directed at once to the hot pot of dry minced beef. The name is misleading: The beef is sliced, not minced, and it’s dried only in the sense that it’s given a quick frying before being submerged in a brown sauce and set to bubbling in the small black cauldron that’s brought out to the table. The heat source beneath the cauldron releases the pungent aroma of the coriander that dusts the beef. That’s the first hit of spice you get. Next comes the fiery crunch of the sliced jalapeño, then the bright tang of green onion. Finally, a bitter, fragrant undercurrent of ginger insinuates itself onto your palate.
Ground coriander also vivifies the roasted fish with green onion—another misnomer, and as dull a description as you’re likely to find for such intoxicating eating. The fillets of moist white fish are quickly fried, coated liberally in salt and crushed coriander seeds, and then dressed up with lots of bright green onion and stir-fried finger peppers.
It’s not mere heat you take away from a dish like that. Chang ignites a dish to awaken you to its flavors, to set off juxtapositions—sometimes startling—in your mouth. Spicy peppercorn beef with cilantro employs, to great and thrilling effect, the much-vaunted Sichuan numbing peppercorns (which until recently were banned in this country for fear of the citrus-canker bacterium). Inside a wrapper of fried flatbread, Chang folds an appealing mixture of cold sliced beef, chili oil, and whole leaves of cilantro. It’s spicy to begin with. Then you bite down on a peppercorn, triggering an odd, but not unpleasant, sensation in the mouth that may remind you of novocaine. What happens now is that your numbed mouth changes the way you experience the heat—muffles it, almost. The cool beef begins to seem just a bit cooler.
It’s not the only dish that will leave you shaking your head in wonder. Spicy beef shank, in which threads of soft, almost gelatinous beef tendon are laced through a salad of cilantro leaves dressed in chili oil, manages the rare and difficult feat of being mouth-searingly hot and also cool and delicate. To say that you will find things at Tempt Asian that you will seldom find elsewhere is not to make a case for such obviously courage-requiring fare as spicy pig-blood tofu or duck feet with peppercorn. I’m referring, rather, to a pork-and-mushroom soup whose rich, reduced mushroom broth is as intense as any French chef’s. And to a bowl of delicate wontons whose chicken broth is made more complex by the addition of ginger and a scattering of teensy dried shrimp, their black eyes smaller than poppyseeds.
And the dishes that are geared to please a Western palate are better than what you can expect to find at the vast majority of Chinese restaurants in the area. General Tso’s Duck, for instance, is a virtuoso display of technique. The duck is deboned and flattened, cut into perfect 1-inch squares, fried until crisp, then bathed in a sweet but not cloying orange-based sauce. General Kwan’s Spicy Beef is a simple stir-fry, but the saucing—cornstarch is kept to a bare minimum—is tight and clean.
Cooking this wonderful, this ambitious, deserves a wide audience. I can only imagine how the staff is going to handle the crush. Learning to trust in its customers, just as it is learning, now, to trust in Chang, is as good a place as any to start.
Tempt Asian Cafe, 6259 Little River Turnpike, Alexandria, (703) 750-6801.—Todd Kliman
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Max Kornell.