Review: Find the real flavors of Sichuan at Trizest

Apr 12, 2017 at 1:00 am
Ma Po Tofu.
Ma Po Tofu. Tom Perkins

(Find a gallery of photos from Trizest here.)

The term "Chinese food" covers a lot of turf, but perhaps the most familiar wing of the country's cuisine is that from the Sichuan province. An Americanized take on Sichuan (then called "Szechuan") spread around the country in the 1970s before restaurants on the coasts started serving more authentic and traditional dishes in the 1990s. Unfortunately for Detroiters, little of our Sichuan cuisine evolved. So when we eat the province's food here, it's often only a hint of the real thing.

And that's why we return to Trizest. What rolls out of its kitchen, which opened in 2010, is closer to what you'll find in Sichuan. There's a balance of flavors and consideration for textural interplay that makes the cuisine exciting. The dishes are surprisingly light, clean, and bright, with ingredients that are the hallmark of Sichuan's piquant flavor portfolio. That means shifting combinations of chiles, garlicky oil, cumin, green onions, dark vinegar, cilantro, and fermented beans and pork.

Also notable is Trizest's liberal use of the mouth-numbing, tingly, almost menthol-like dried berries called Sichuan peppercorns. They're a bit of a rarity in Detroit, which is partly because cooks bent Sichuan dishes to suit American tastes for so many years, and that included the elimination of the berry and its odd sensation. It's also partly because the federal government banned the berries until 2005. Though they resemble black peppercorns and are used for a similar effect, the Sichuan peppers are actually dried prickly ash tree berries that hold a different identity.

One place to find them at Trizest is in the stir-fried cabbage. The dish holds a pile of lightly-fried-but-still-crunchy and oil-slicked green cabbage (Sichuan cooks use a lot of oil, but the dishes aren't greasy). It is served with the Sichuan peppers and toasted, dried chiles, providing a textural and flavor interplay that would make Tom Verlaine proud.

Down in the house special section, which is the menu's best territory, the bean curd and fish in pickled red pepper sauce is sour and spicy from fermented vegetables and sour Thai peppers, all of which is served in a pool of oil, along with the flounder and tofu. The similar but moodier Perfume Fish is also worth a taste. Its mix of three varieties of hot peppers and Sichuan berries ignites shifting oral sensations that are to varying degrees warm, tingly, and refreshing. The dish, which is filled with scarlet oil and bean sprouts, looks threatening, but won't singe your mouth.

Likewise, the contents of the ma po tofu nearly bob in a pool of deep red oil that inspires caution, but should be dredged with gusto for the earthy mix of spicy peppers, fermented black beans, and ground pork.

Of course, the "squirrel shaped fish" is going to jump off the menu. The name is likely derived from the bushy squirrel tail appearance of the two deep fried flounder filets that comprise the dish. Hsing Ming Wu, an owner, says its one of the more popular items, but that's not because it is a novelty. We got ours "double flavor" with one tail in a sweet and sour sauce, and another in a spicy and sour, pepper-studded sauce. The latter is superior, but both are more than good.

Vegetarians could consider the folds of green stir-fried pea shoots, which isn't as texturally interesting as the cabbage, but worth checking out for the deep flavors of the verdant green shoots. The eggplant fried in a puff of batter with a slightly sweet sauce and green onions is another good meat-free choice.

If you're into the deep cuts, then you can try most of the major components of a pig's digestive system in an assortment of appetizers and dishes like quick-fried kidney, spicy pig stomach, or pig intestine and blood curd in a wok. We went for the quick-fried kidney, which arrives in long, soft, spiny strips jumbled with snap peas, huge black mushrooms, Thai peppers, and bars of green onion. The "bad" parts, as the waiter put it, are cut from the kidney, and the remaining meat is thoroughly washed to flush out any hint of urine. Wu says that if you seek kidney, then call ahead to reserve one — it's a popular dish with the Chinese, and regularly sought by pregnant women for its nutrients.

click to enlarge Quick-fried pig kidneys. - Photo by Tom Perkins
Photo by Tom Perkins
Quick-fried pig kidneys.

It should be noted that you're going to wait for your food, so don't be in a hurry when you go. That's what happens when it's made from scratch. Wu says Trizest's customer base used to be almost exclusively Chinese, but more and more non-Chinese are hearing about the difference and, for many, experiencing their first bites of authentic Sichuan.