In a city full of delicacy-peddling,
expense account-padding Cantonese
joints, a high-end modern Sichuanese
eatery is bound to make waves. The
commitment of head chef Huang
Chao’s kitchen to buck the trend in
Chinese fine dining of subtle, dare we
say imperceptible, coastal flavours is
just the tip of the chilli at Transit. For a
chef hailing from a region famous for its
use of mouth-numbing peppercorns,
Transit’s unique take on chuancai is
anything but monochromatic.
love of spice and numbing is only
rivaled by his delicate and restrained
hand – tender dandan noodles are kissed with a smouldering heat from
house-made chilli oil and cut with a
squeeze of fresh lime, while koushuiji
poached chicken warms and cools
simultaneously with its delightfully
contrasting sensory information.
Transit does the capital proud with its
unparalleled Sichuanese fare. It’s an
institution and a spicy-ass feather in
Transit has no high-thread-count tablecloths, presenting itself as dressed down but with the élan of a sophisticated lady. And you should come here for the excellent modern Sichuan fare created by Huang Chao, a young, well-trained chef from the city of Luzhou, Sichuan. The key word here is ‘modern’ – not ‘fusion’, a slight shift away from that popular label for classic and not-so classic dishes taken from Sichuan cuisine.
Transit first appeared in 2002, in the Gongti hutongs, until they were destroyed in 2006. A loyal following of stars and folks with good taste crossed their fingers in the hope that it would reopen, and Huang remained employed in other family restaurants. Transit has resurrected itself, and now, the joint is jamming, perched on the third floor above the Village North’s boutiques.
Classic dishes are perfectly executed, as in the spicy Sichuan chicken cold cut, which uses an organic young chicken for a dish full of chilli perfume and peppercorn mouth-numbing deliciousness. It sells out fast. Calling this ‘modern’ Sichuan food seems a safe disclaimer since none of the owners are Sichuanese. Their methods are clever, like with dan dan mian, the classic wheat noodle dish with a pork-enriched chilli broth and all the traditional fixins. A wedge of bright Meyer lemon, the sweet sunny citrus with Chinese origins, gives an interesting cut through the spice and numbing mala. Like it or not, it intrigues the taste buds and the influence of lemony-sour broth can be put down to the Balkan flavour palate of the restaurant’s Romanian co-owner. It’s an unlikely combination, but it works beautifully.
House-made douhua is silky and lightly smoky tofu with a halo of garnishes. The Transit pickles don’t immediately impress, but they grow on you as the meal advances, each bite like a refresh button. This is a welcome hit after the heavy flavour of a giant prawn in its shell with asparagus and a chilli coat curled next to a squiggle of savoury chocolate sauce. It’s left up to you whether you combine the flavours or keep things separate. This method of serving offers adventure with an optional dip over to the side of sweet.
Mapo doufu, the dish used to gauge any Sichuan restaurant, has the requisite pool of vermillion oil, and douban chilli paste. The paste is best from Pixian in Chengdu, but Huang, like many residents of Sichuan, makes his own according to his mother’s recipe. Fresh preserved black beans sparsely hide throughout well-textured doufu. The dusting of numbing mala from provincial peppercorns and a scatter of fresh chopped green leeks make a great example of all the right ingredients, but it’s lacking assertion.
At Transit, the floral scents of southeast Asia marry with the jazz of chillies and peppercorns, ending with a mouthful of surprises that evoke the ‘wow’ factor. It happens with the oil infused with litsea seeds used in dishes such as the steamed perch rolls stuffed with bamboo and ham. Its flavour is bright with a touch of lime, and the fragrant oil also transforms simple mixed vegetables with a seductive perfume.
A plate of ribs cloaked in sticky rice is hard to turn down. Tender pork ribs are guised in a winter smock of seasoned sticky rice and win without question. Dragon beans, also called winged beans, are stir-fried with slices of smoky Sichuan bacon, and wear charred marks that burst with the fiery scent and flavourof the wok. They glisten with nary an excess drop of oil. Desserts perhaps don’t match the mains, but they’re certainly past interesting. Their prices – and those of many of the dishes – may be deemed high. Even the sparkling water, in a designer bottle and pedigreed from New Zealand, comes in at 80RMB. But it’s a truism that you get what you pay for, and Transit is worth it.