The New York Times: Hitting the Sweat Spot, Straight from Sichuan

the new york times

THE Eskimos may not have a hundred words for snow, but surely theSichuanese have words for the seemingly infinite shades of heat that ripple througha single meal.

A minimalist canteen in whitewashed brick and red beams, Hot Kitchen iscloser to N.Y.U. in spirit than to Chinatown.

There is the heat that skulks, hitting you 30 seconds into a bite, and theafterburn that burrows under the tongue and throbs. There is the heat thatflays and the heat that tickles, the heat that leaves you boneless and the heatthat makes you roar. There is the stealthy sear that italicizes each tooth, thescrape in the throat, the full-body swelter that demands the immediate removalof clothes.

And then there is the heat that isn’t heat at all but a slow paresthesia,a tattoo that starts at the edges of the lips and hypnotizes, then obliterates,the tongue.

All of which is to say that the name Hot Kitchen does not adequately convey the complexity of flavors offered by this small,unpretentious Sichuan restaurant, which opened in the East Village inSeptember.

If you had world enough and time, the 164-dish menu would be lessfrustrating. It helps to have a native speaker in your party. (At least thisseems to spur the cooks to be more generous with those precious husks of Sichuan peppercorn, the magic bullets of Sichuan cuisine.)

The “cold” dishes, with which you are advised to begin, are some of thefiercest here, deadlocks of fire and ice. Chilled mung bean noodles — actuallylong, fat bands of jelly made from mung bean starch — slither off thechopsticks, glassy with red chile oil and black vinegar ($6.50). Pickledpeppers are the barbarian invaders in a demure plate of pale steamed eggplant($7). You are stabbed, then soothed.

Ox tongue and tripe are cooked in a broth built on a caramelly base ofrock sugar dissolved in peanut oil, then loaded with cassia, fennel, staranise, cloves and just enough Sichuanpepper to raise your hackles ($9). The tongue yields, the tripe resists. InMandarin, this is known as Husband and Wife Lung Slices. “Which is which?” adiner asked, receiving, alas, no answer.

Borrowed from the northwestern province of Xinjiang, lamb withcumin has a fragrance so powerful you can’t tell if you are smelling it ortasting it ($16). More prosaic are pig intestines, fried over a low flame withvery little oil until crispy without, moist within ($16). You almost forgetwhich part of the pig you are gobbling down, until that eye-opening backwash offunk.

Certain dishes go too far in the direction of soup, like a whole fishhalf-swimming in an overly sweet hot bean sauce ($22), or nubs of pork clingingto skinny cellophane noodles (a k a Ants Climbing a Tree) in a deluge of ricewine, soy and fermented chile-and-fava-bean paste ($11).

Aside from red cooked pork ($14) — pork belly quick-fried thenlong-simmered, mild and almost creamy — items labeled “classical” here tend tothe perfunctory. Ma po tofu($11), in which docile bean curd is baptized in fire, immobilizing the mouthfrom roof to tongue, should be at once more nuanced and less merciful. On arecent visit, dry, drab tea-smoked duck ($19) lay forgotten on a corner of thetable, barely touched.

Inevitably, menu fatigue sets in. Blink and you might miss No. 105, ahumble stir-fry of green pepper and scrambled egg, transmuted by the salty-sourspoor of pickled amaranth ($11). Don’t.

Hot Kitchen, a minimalist canteen in whitewashed brick and red beams, iscloser in spirit to N.Y.U. than to Chinatown.Mandarin pop songs, occasionally laced with bossa nova, quaver from above. Onevery table, it seems, is a different dish. Outside it is 100 degrees. In Sichuan in summer it isnot uncommon for men to end dinner at restaurants with their shirts off. But weAmericans are primmer, and so we sit, hearts racing, and sweat.

Hot Kitchen

104 Second Avenue (East Sixth Street), (212) 228-3090,

RECOMMENDED Mung bean noodles with spicypeppery sauce; steamed eggplant with minced pickled pepper; lamb with cumin;red cooked pork with chestnut; green pepper and egg with preserved Sichuanvegetable; preserved meat fried rice.

PRICES $2.50 to $24.

HOURS Monday to Thursday, noon to11:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon to midnight; Sunday, noon to 10:30 p.m.


WHEELCHAIR ACCESS The dining roomis several steps down from sidewalk level. The restroom is too narrow and notequipped with handrail.

A version of this review appears in print on July 4,2012, on page D6 of the New York edition withthe headline: Hitting the Sweat Spot, Straight From Sichuan.