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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

High-flying flavours

Menu a bit of a mystery, but exceptional Szechuan cuisine worth exploring

Posted: 07/10/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

Last Modified: 07/10/2014 6:31 AM | Updates

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(L to R) Jing Feng wife of Leilei Du, owner/chef and waitress Ailang Hou of the Winnipeg Flying Noodle House.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

(L to R) Jing Feng wife of Leilei Du, owner/chef and waitress Ailang Hou of the Winnipeg Flying Noodle House. Photo Store

It's a bright, clean, simple room done entirely in sky blue, with only some occasional greenery for decoration. But what it lacks in decor is more than made up for by what comes out of the kitchen.

This address has been home to an endless series of restaurants, most of them good, but few of them lasting very long. One reason for the constant turnover, I suspect, was the lack of parking in a neighbourhood where strolling even a few short blocks isn't an appealing prospect. That's one problem the Winnipeg Flying Noodle House shouldn't have. Not only is there a parking lot in back, but there's also direct access from the lot to the restaurant. There certainly shouldn't be any problem with the food, which is delicious, and often exceptional.

This is Chinese with a difference, and many of the dishes won't be found elsewhere. Szechuan is a term sometimes used loosely as a catch-all for anything that is spicy, but in this case it's the real deal. Many dishes are highly spiced, although nothing I had was tongue-numbing, and, in any case, they will be tamed up or, for timider tastes, down. In fact, several were quite mild. Prices were mild too, with most dishes from $6.99 to $12.99.

Actually the first dish I had here -- which turned out to be one of my favourites -- isn't on the menu, but is listed, in Chinese only, on a small chalkboard. Never shy, we asked, and learned there were pigs' ears, which delighted us, although we had to assure our server that, even though we weren't Chinese, we loved pigs' ears. And we loved these too -- cold, vinegar-marinated slices (looking much like headcheese) with a gelatinous, chewy texture, garnished with peanuts and crisp wafers of mild red peppers.

The menu itself is oddly lopsided -- no shrimp, one chicken dish (not available), one of lamb, one of fish and four with beef, but pork rules overwhelmingly. Confusing too, since there are few descriptions of the dishes, and those few are inadequate.

It was an adventure, but we liked whatever we got, even if it wasn't always what we'd expected. There was no way of knowing, for instance, that No. 2 "stir-fried spice ribs" would turn out to be a glory of salty-sweet little ribs with some of the best fried potato cubes ever, with an extra punch of flavour from tiny fermented beans. Or that No. 11 "sliced pork with garlic" would be the fabulous, slightly warm slices of pork belly, mildly spiced with pickled garlic, vinegar and chili oil.

No. 19 was another stunner that packed a more serious wallop than most of the others we tried -- a sweet, salty, spicy mixture of the menu's "stir-fried shredded pork," with shreds of carrots, bamboo shoots and dark, crunchy wood ear mushrooms in a house-made garlic chili sauce that left our tongues tingling. One unexpected success was No. 37, "stir-fry eggs and tomatoes" -- a simple, mild and delightful scramble.

Not everything delighted, though. The spicy-sweet beef jerky came in chunks with a texture that was more stewed than chewy. Green beans stir-fried with minced pork would have been better if the beans had been fresher. A big bowlful of very spicy pork slices with a few greens in a crimson chili oil sauce looked like soup, but (according to our server) wasn't. It was probably authentic but too oily for most tastes, mine included, although I liked the flavours of the meat and greens when I fished them out through the oil. One intriguing dish was a mixture of pork and ham slices, bamboo shoots and cloud ear mushrooms, to be poured over crisply fried rice cakes -- not bad, but more seasoning in the sauce would have made it better.

But similar, even more fabulous crisply fried rice cakes come on their own as appetizers. Another excellent appetizer was the four skewers of lamb kebab -- thin, cumin-spiked slices with a sweetish afterbite of what might have been Szechuan pepper. One must is the simple-sounding but refreshing pickled cabbage -- crunchy leaves that tasted more marinated than pickled, to cool things down if you've bitten into one too many chili pods. I liked the shredded cold potatoes seasoned with vinegar sauce and Szechuan peppercorns, and also, to a lesser extent, the similarly seasoned seaweed salad.

Oddly, the eponymous noodles offered the least interesting choices. The house-made noodles are tender and tasty, but are available in soups only, and ours was OK but unexciting -- a nice broth, but topped by overcooked, almost shredded pieces of flavourless, and not in the least spicy (as described) beef brisket (possibly the soup with slow-cooked pork might be a better choice). The biggest disappointment, though, was the wonton soup -- a bland broth (available with chili sauce also) with ultra-fishy-tasting seaweed and dried shrimp, and 20 pork dumplings with perfect texture but no flavour at all.

Communication isn't always easy, but the service was friendly and super-attentive. Best bet, if he's not too busy (he wasn't, on our visits), is to discuss your choices with the chef-owner.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 10, 2014 C5

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Updated on Thursday, July 10, 2014 at 6:31 AM CDT: Tweaks map, formats sidebar

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