So naturally on our first stay in Tokyo we made the pilgrimage to Shisen Hanten in Akasaka neighborhood of Tokyo, to the only one of the many restaurants headed by Chen Kenichi where he personally cooks, where both his father and mother had cooked before him.
Because real Szechwan cooking is too spicy for Japanese, Chen Kenichi has modified the classic dishes making them more friendly to the local palate, sweeter and less spicy than the Chinese classics I'd come to love. Chen, clearly a wise man, offers both the original and modified versions at Shisen Hanten. So when ordering, we opted for one original and two Japanese-friendly dishes, looking to compare them to my wife's execution of the same.
Coming to the Iron Chef's sacred place in Tokyo, I had set my expectations on something majestic. In the middle of a night in a rather deserted neighborhood, after looking for the restaurant entrance for quite some time, we finally walked into a drab office building and were surprised to see the restaurant name located on the 6th floor. Once there, the interior design looked like a cross between a country club dining room (never an inspiring food site) and a canteen from the 1970's westernized Hong-Kong lounge (at least how I would imagine that) - pink table clothes, cheesy furniture, and a few business suits on corporate expense accounts, no doubt.
"This is gonna be good!" - I thought. "A place that looks as uninspiring as this must really be all about the food!" said the optimist in me. After all, we knew this was going to be the most we'd ever paid for Szechwan. Tokyo + Iron Chef is not a recipe for a cheap dining experience. "This had BETTER be good!"
Quickly scanning through the wine list, we gave up on the over-priced sub-par selection of Beaujolais, Languedocs, Chiantis and some random Bordeaux, and opted for a local Asahi beer. This was supposed to be foolproof - I had never gone wrong with the beer + Szechwan combo. But that's because I'd never had Asahi Super Dry with that - which in retrospect has got to be the worst lager I'd ever had - flavorless and light, it was the only beer ever to not go with Chinese. And to think that it's the most popular beer in Japan - boggles my mind!
First we ordered the chef's signature dish - chili prawns, made in the modified style to suit Japanese tastes.
The heavy sauce was made with bean paste, tomato sauce, minced garlic, minced ginger, stock, egg yolk, sugar, cooking wine, and rice vinegar. The prawns came out overcooked and tough, and the sauce while tasty, clearly was missing the spicy kick, and was too ketchup-like for me. Another disappointment, but from then on, things started looking up, with the next dish prepared in the traditional Szechwan style.
The mapo tofu was spectacular. Rona is the home master chef of mapo tofu, but let's just be honest - Iron Chef's creation was in a class by itself. While her sauce is lighter and plainer, his is deeper, more concentrated, more "beany", and with dramatically more intense and integrated ground szechuan peppercorns and chili oil. While she uses rough ground meat, his is completely blended in with the sauce. Oooh, it would have been heaven, if not for that damn beer.
Then came the trusty tan-tan noodle (aka "dan-dan mian") made in Japanese style. Dan-dan mian is another staple of my wife's home cooking. Chen Kenichi's father came up with the idea of turning tan-tan noodles into a noodle soup dish, since the dry seasoned egg noodles traditionally used in this dish weren't very popular in Japan. He refused to eat his invention himself, though. His son, however, prefers that version. Again, the chef outdid himself.
While it didn't have the punch of the classic dan-dan mian, it was a very complex and delicious soup. Made with soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame paste, chili oil, and onion-infused lard, with sautéed ground pork and Chinese mustard greens, we couldn't stop eating.
As misfortune would have it, the Iron Chef was not there that day. But his spirit was all around us (though it must have gone out for a smoke during the cooking of the prawns).
In the final analysis,
- Iron Chef's 3 dishes cost us over ~$90 (Rona's home version - $15)
- Asahi Super Dry dreck: ~$10
- Kicking it up at the Iron Chef's - priceless!