The idea of authenticity in food is tempting but slippery. Take, for example, So Do Fun, a new restaurant in Gramercy. If you had to categorize it bluntly, you might call it Sichuan—but it’s the first U.S. outpost of a chain founded in 2007 in Guangzhou, the Chinese city historically romanized as Canton, which means that it’s Sichuan for a Cantonese clientele. Does this origin story make it less authentic—or, indeed, more authentic, reflecting the organically idiosyncratic way that a specific group of people eat?
The boiled fish in chili sauce or chili oil, the house specialty, can be left whole or filleted.
Regardless, to experience that idiosyncrasy is pure pleasure: a sort of push and pull through peppercorn punch and mellow sweetness, across the menu’s dishes and sometimes within them, too. Sichuan-style boiled fish in chili sauce—a house specialty, advertised on custom takeout containers—is properly, immutably fiery, a glorious morass of dried chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, scallions, cilantro, sesame seeds, and shiny knobs of unpeeled garlic almost completely obscuring the fish, served whole or in supple fillets, dusted with cornstarch so that it holds a sculptural, rippled shape. “You can’t just top-skim—you have to dredge,” one of my dining companions noted, as he trawled the bottom of a forged-steel skillet with a spoon, unearthing a few bonus morsels of fillet.
A whole fish awaits its sauce of dried chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, cucumber, cilantro leaves and stems, sesame seeds, and knobs of unpeeled garlic.
A page of Must Haves lists mapo tofu, spicy crawfish, double-cooked pork, and Sichuan-style fried chicken, all of which bear substantial heat. It also includes more understated options, worthy both as dramatic foils and in their own right. Slender slabs of pork belly are battered in coarse, crispy rice meal before they’re steamed in bamboo atop chunks of taro, the slightly sugared coating going pleasantly soft, the fat rendered nearly gelatinous. Frilly leaves of Napa cabbage are bathed in a warm chicken consommé, topped with buoyantly crunchy shrimp and segments of preserved egg, almost black and as translucent as stained glass.
Scallions are added to the mix.
Must you have the bullfrog? If you’re chasing authenticity, you’d better—it’s a popular protein in Sichuan Province. Moreover, the dish is delicious. I’ll admit that I balked at the word, but not for a second at the platter delivered to the table, a beautiful mosaic of chopped fresh green chilies (easy to eat around, unless you’re a true spice hound) punctuated with pearlescent pieces of tender meat that release easily from small bones. As mild as lobster, bullfrog is a wonderful canvas for the mala hum of an oil infused with green Sichuan peppercorns, a more citrusy cousin of the standard red variety.
After I’d ordered the boiled fish, a server steered me away from the boiled beef in chili sauce; too similar, he explained, and suggested the sliced beef with pickles and tomato soup. Its delicate, fruity broth turned out to be on just the right side of cloying, balanced by cubes of silken tofu and the beef, sliced into ruffles so thin that they must have cooked in seconds. If the comfort of the chili sauce took the form of catharsis—heart-racing heat and its attendant sweat—the comfort of the tomato soup was soporific, more soothing than Campbell’s. A rousingly refreshing bowl of skinned, chilled cherry tomatoes, meanwhile, with a single dried sour plum that rehydrated in their juice, displayed the versatility of the same flavor profile.
The tomatoes, on the Cold Dish section of the menu, along with noodles and boiled chicken, both slicked in chili oil, could as easily be enjoyed at the end of the meal as at the beginning. The same is true, perhaps more surprisingly, of the brown-sugar rice cake, listed as a snack. Neat rectangles of deep-fried sticky-rice paste tossed in toasted soy flour, sweetened only by a chaste dusting of brown sugar, are served with a side of viscous molasses for dipping. “Some people get them as an appetizer, some as a dessert,” a server told me. Some people eat bullfrog, some do not. Some people want their beef to light their tongues on fire, some want it in tomato soup. At So Do Fun, where you can choose your own adventure, authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. (Dishes $8.95-$36.95.) ♦