Tamed flames

Dec 19, 2001 at 12:00 am

The Chinese restaurant of my childhood was strictly Cantonese, but Szechuan Empire brought back memories of that little restaurant in the working-class Connecticut town where I grew up.

Szechuan Empire has been feeding its Livonia neighborhood for more than 10 years, and on a busy Saturday night all the tables were occupied. On a weeknight bags of carryout were lined up, waiting for busy moms and dads. The staff is friendly and attentive.

It’s a fork-and-spoon place; authenticity has been subjugated to American tastes, and fiery Szechuan specialties are toned down and interspersed with milder Cantonese entrées. Szechuan, a western province of China, is landlocked and ringed with mountains, leading to the development of a distinct cuisine which was influenced by travelers along China’s silk route. Originally Szechuan had more contact with India than it did with the rest of China. This helps to explain the hot dishes, created by liberal use of Szechuan peppers; we found plenty of these in the dishes we ordered. However, some of the entrées I thought most successful were the blander Cantonese choices.

We focused on the section of the menu titled “House Specialties.” I was drawn to a dish titled “Triple Fragrance Sizzling Rice” ($13.55) which included beef, shrimp and scallops in a semisweet sauce, stir-fried with plenty of vegetables, baby corn, straw mushrooms and broccoli among them. The puffed rice was a welcome counterpoint to the sauce that I tired of quickly.

But that was nothing compared to the orange chicken ($10.85) I ordered on another night, a dish so sweet it could have been a dessert. When I complained to the co-diner, he sniffed that I should have realized that oranges are sweet, but I went with the menu description: “tender and crispy — sautéed in chef’s spicy hot sauce with a touch of orange peel flavor.” What I got was heavily battered, deep-fried chicken strips dotted with chili peppers.

If you shy away from duck, you’ll miss one of the best dishes we had: Mandarin crispy duck ($9.75). The half duck is plain, nary a vegetable accompanies it, but it was perfectly cooked — brittle skin, moist meat, not a glint of fat. You dunk it into a soy dipping sauce, and I found myself going for chunk after chunk.

Hot-and-sour soup is a well-known Szechuan dish, and here it was filled with slices of wood ear mushrooms, pork and more in a thickened broth, but it was neither hot nor sour. The mouth-puckering flavor created by a liberal dash of vinegar was missing.

We tried the sizzling rice soup ($6.50 for two) and I was impressed with the amount of goodies in the bowl — shrimp, scallops, chicken and an array of Chinese vegetables. But the broth was one-dimensional and the rice neither sizzled nor sang; it was sprinkled on top. What’s the fun of that?

We brought home moo goo gai pan ($8.75), a Cantonese specialty, for our very fussy teen. Slabs of chicken breast are sautéed with snow peas, bamboo shoots and mushrooms in a simple white sauce. Not exotic, but well done, and probably just the kind of dish that has kept this place busy for the last 10 years.

Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].