So what's all the fuss about?
In its various Melbourne incarnations Dainty Sichuan has won not just the hearts of Melbourne Chinese-food fans, but international attention from the likes of Momofuku chef (and confirmed noodle obsessive) David Chang, Noma's René Redzepi and Anthony Bourdain. Its chefs are a cut above, as is its commitment to quality. Owners Tina Li and Ye Shao have long imported not one but three kinds of Sichuan pepper direct from China - one kind best known for its fragrance, one for its numbing quality and a third fresh-frozen peppercorn - to ensure the flavours at the restaurant are as true to what they grew up with as possible.
The South Yarra mothership has been at the top of the to-do list for any self-respecting Sydney Chinese food-obsessive visiting Melbourne for many a year. So the news that a local branch, the first outside Melbourne, was coming to World Square got us hot and bothered. When the opening blew out weeks and then months past the original March date, excitement turned into exasperation. Bugger it, we said. There's plenty more spicy soup in Sydney, and Chongqing noodle shops are almost as common a sight on Instagram as pictures of brunch at Paper Bird.
Inside the World Square site.
But - spoiler alert - now that it's finally open it turns out it was worth waiting for, right?
Absolutely. It's a notch above anything else in the Chongqing noodle soup game in the CBD and serious competition for everything else. If you love spicy Chinese food, you're going to love Dainty Sichuan Noodle Express.
Noodle Express? Does that mean it's just noodles?
Almost but not quite. The core of the menu is certainly noodle soups, Chongqing spicy noodle soup being the standard-bearer. It's done straight-up, the wheat noodles and chicken-based broth topped with chilli oil, Sichuan pepper and a garnish of bok choy, or with the addition of braised beef, pork chitterlings (aka small intestine), or a mix of both. The version with minced pork and yellow split peas is particularly hearty. There's also more mildly spiced noodle soups offered with stewed lamb ribs, one with duck and pickled chilli, and a chicken and mushroom number that's milder still. You can get dry (that is, soupless) versions of most of these, and several are offered with potato noodles in a more vinegary broth.
What's the pick of them?
We're gonna go out on a limb and say that the best of the noodle dishes are things that are too small to be considered meals in themselves, and are served cold. But bite for bite, the Sichuan cold noodle and the spicy green-bean jelly noodle (think vermicelli) are perhaps the best things on the menu. And each will give you change from six bucks.
What about things that aren't noodles?
The braises are offered on rice, and there are small plates of sliced pigs' ears and pickled vegetable threads on the cold dishes section that are spicy and compelling. Bundles of cold skewers of beef and chicken offer plenty of interest beyond the fillet, with tripe, tongue and stomach among the former, and giblets, heart and liver among the latter. The stewed trotters (or "pork feet") are excellent. If you're not familiar with the joys of the trotter be aware that there's not much meat on them - you're in it for the skin and tendons as much as anything else - and it's a sticky, hands-on affair. The disposable gloves you're handed with them are there for a reason.
Anything for the vegetarians?
Yes, as it happens - the Chongqing noodle soup, the potato noodles and the cold noodle dishes are all offered in meat-free versions. You'll also find vegetarian skewers. No eggplant, though, alas.
Co-owner and chef Tina Li.
So is it all crazy-hot?
There's definitely some heat here. ("Dainty" Sichuan is a famously inapt name.) But it's more a rich warmth than the chilli intensity of a jungle curry at one of Sydney's better Thai restaurants (let alone a level-six bowl of tom yum at Dodee Paideng), and doesn't rip through the digestive system of the initiate diner like a hot ball-bearing through a block of cold butter. Think sweaty-hot rather than I-can-see-through-time-hot. The thing you'll really notice is probably the numbing.
Numbing. Perhaps the most distinctive of the 23 flavours of the Sichuan culinary canon, ma la wei xing is marked by the numbing quality of Sichuan peppercorns (ma) balanced by the heat of chilli (la). The city of Chongqing, Dainty co-owner and chef Tina Li's hometown, is famed for its taste for ma la wei xing. You'll find plenty of it here, not least in the cold chicken salad.
Did you say something about no eggplant?
Yep. Afraid so. The "fish-fragrant" eggplant that's considered by many fans to be the best dish on the menu at the South Yarra restaurant is not on the menu here. If you can't shake the craving, you're probably best off hitting the other end of the CBD for the tribute version Victor Liong (now chef at Lee Ho Fook) cooked up for the menu at Mr Wong. Bonus fun-fact: there is no fish in "fish-fragrant" eggplant - pickled red chillies are traditionally the key flavour.
Yes, please. Dainty doesn't BYO, but it does serve Asahi, Tsingtao, Harbin and Corona beers at $7.80 a pop. There's also tea, of course, and the likes of Dainty Special Drink - tamarind juice, yumberry juice, "white fungus in rice wine drink", papaya milk, banana milk, that Chinese prune drink you always see in Sichuan restaurants - plus freshly juiced watermelon and Tian Fu, a Chinese cola vaguely reminiscent of Pepsi Max.
What about all this business about staff being underpaid in Melbourne?
Those allegations, which got an airing again in the press last month, concerned staff at branch restaurants Tina's Noodle Kitchen in Box Hill and Dainty Sichuan on Swanston Street being paid below-legal rates in 2016. Co-owner Ye Shao says that the restaurant changed its wages as soon as it was contacted by Fair Work Australia, and has repaid the money it owed the staff in question. "We made a mistake and we deserve a penalty for that," he says. "That's fair. Since then we've changed all the salaries at all the restaurants." Staff in the Sydney restaurant, he adds, are all paid award rates.
Okay, so what if I've only got the time, money or space for one dish?
We put this to Ye Shao, and he said that the Chongqing noodles were the signature at the Noodle Express. "But they're pretty spicy, so if it's your first time, you might like to try the stewed beef noodles instead. They're not so spicy, but it's good flavour and also very high quality. I hope you like them."
Any other tips?
Dress warm. The courtyard at World Square has wind patterns all its own, none of them friendly. And grab a coffee (and maybe a Shortstop cruller) from the reliably excellent Kingswood on the way out. Oh, and wear black. Chilli oil on white linen really stings.
See you in the queue, noodle fans.
Dainty Sichuan Noodle Express, shop 10,19b World Square, 644 George St, Sydney, NSW. Open lunch and dinner daily 11.30am-9pm.
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