China Kitchen is located in the Shangri-La Hotel, close to the Night Bazaar on Chang Klan Rd, and has been open since April of 2015. They pride themselves on providing an authentic Szechuan cuisine experience to its guests. At the wok is Chef Chen Jiang Ming, himself a native of Szechuan. His youthful face belies his sixteen years of experience.
Thus far, he has earned four different masters in Chinese cuisine and one from the French Cordon Bleu. He has also received an accolade from China’s Vice Prime Minister of the State when he won first prize at the Food Communication Meeting, and in 2013 he won first prize at a Cooking Skills Competition at the Shanghai Municipal Secretary Committee Party. It appears that Chef Chen has immersed himself in his craft of late, practicing for his own enjoyment as well as for the benefit of others.
Entering the dining room, one is greeted with an opulent, yet unpretentious first impression. The spacious restaurant is dimly lit with the tables and furnishings cloaked with a warm terracotta color theme. The contemporary Chinese ambiance embraces and welcomes. The intention of the China Kitchen is to produce an authentic Szechuan dining experience and, from what I experienced, this is certainly being achieved. Chef Chen imports some key ingredients from Szechuan, including dried chilies and the all-important Szechuan peppers that impart their unique flavor and aroma.
Watching Chef Chen work his magic in the kitchen was a pleasure. His flow was effortless and the ease in which he assembled our dishes was proof of his skill. He worked the Chuan (Chinese spatula), wok and ladle like they were one instrument, and in just a few minutes there were four dishes beckoning us.
Our very well-informed restaurant manager, Mrs. Yun Meng, was an enthusiastic hostess providing instant replies to my never-ending questions. Diners needing information on Szechuan cuisine are in good hands. We enjoyed our food family style.
First up was poached fish Szechuan style. Chef Chen dry roasted chili and Szechuan pepper first before building a delicate poaching liquor in which the fish, along with Enoki mushrooms, are briefly simmered. The result is a soup-like dish with the tender poached fish floating beneath a layer of smoky dried chili and chili oil.
I dove in expecting to pay for my overflowing spoon with a fiery penalty. However, it was not the case. The first note was the Szechuan pepper; these were of a quality that I have not encountered before. They added a crunch as well as aroma, also acting like a decongestant opening my senses. The smoked chilies masked the dish and transmitted their warming frequency of bass rather than treble. Before too long I was gnawing on some of the chilies, but not too many.
Next up was tofu with special sauce. We were informed this is a very special Szechuan dish. It did not disappoint. The flavors of spring onion and fresh Shiitake mushrooms were the initial characters here. Black bean sauce with just the right amount of thickening agent resulted in a comforting gravy coating the tender but not flimsy tofu. Incidentally, the tofu is made in-house with a process involving soymilk and ice.
To follow was crispy chicken with dried chili, a favorite with Thai clientele. This is another example of the generous use of dry roasted Szechuan chilis, which impart a smoky facade without being too overpowering with heat. The chicken, firm-textured but not dry, providing a lean protein element. Impeccably fresh and crunchy peanuts with slices of fragrant spring onion complete this most enjoyable plate.
Our last sampling was stir-fried cauliflower with pork belly. I love the versatility of cauliflower, the humble flowerets imparting their familiar comforting texture and sweetness. The pork was quite lean for belly and with just enough chew. This dish was not as aggressive in terms of spice as the others and a nice way to bring my taste buds back to Earth.
The service team led by Yun Meng hovered around us during our meal but were not obtrusive by any means. Their level of service was efficient rather than formal and in keeping with the tone of the dining environment. The meal finished and I paused with one last gaze around the restaurant. I felt fortunate to have experienced this Szechuan cuisine. Chiang Mai can boast a real taste of Szechuan downtown at the Shangri-La.
Written By Luke, E-Table Chiang Mai