By Marisa Olsen
Legend Bar & Restaurant in Chelsea, a cult favorite Sichuan restaurant, now has a new sister spot on the Upper West Side. Legend Upper West, located at 109 Street and Broadway, which opened its doors in early December. The word has definitely spread—on a recent Monday night at 6pm, the Upper West Side outpost was packed.
The menu is organized by sections: Chef’s Special Entrees, like Braised Fish in Red Soup; New Style Sichuan, featuring Chengu Braised Duck; Traditional Sichuan, such as the popular Sichuan Spicy Ma Po Tofu; and then of course the Americanized section (think Lo Mein and General Tso’s Chicken).
One of my favorite dishes was the Dan Dan Noodles Cheng Du Style, which was a bowl of spicy noodles with little bits of crispy ground pork. Typically I order Spicy Sichuan Noodles, but our waiter insisted that this noodle dish is more traditional. I loved the saltiness of the pork with the noodles and the subtle spice that hits your throat at the end of each bite. The Shrimp Wontons in Red Sesame Oil was also delicious. These wontons were simple with a subtle sweet flavor of shrimp and a light touch of spice in the sesame oil.
The Sichuan Spicy Ma Po Tofu entrée was an ace and apparently one of the most popular dishes. We were warned about the heat, but didn’t find the spice level out of the ordinary. This dish was filled with silken tofu cubes ensconced in a spicy red chili sauce. Each bite subtly burst in your mouth and left a hint of spice on the lips.
Another win was the Sliced Pork Sautéed with Garlic Stems. Although the garlic stems seemed more like leeks, this dish was surprising. The pork reminded me of a less-crunchy, smoky bacon—a little chewy and fatty, but it went along excellently with the al dente leeks/garlic stems.
Legend Upper West does not yet have their liquor license but do not let that stop you from checking it out. This place is a gem and very affordable. Appetizers are $5-$10 and entrees range from $11-$27. The service was quick and helpful, our waiter was always willing to explain dishes and make recommendations (good ones to boot). One warning to the faint of heart: most dishes are salty and spicy. But the flavors and preparations are top-notch.
After experiencing the brilliance of Legend, I was anxious to find other Sichuan restaurants in the neighborhood. I stumbled upon an outpost of Grand Sichuan on Amsterdam and 74th Street. Grand Sichuan has a few establishments throughout the city, including Chelsea, Murray Hill, and even Jersey City. I decided to give my local neighborhood branch a chance. On a recent Thursday night, there was a steady stream of customers, but nothing compared to the jam-packed Legend on a Monday night.
The menu at Grand Sichuan was not sectioned off by cuisine styles; rather all dishes were organized by Appetizers, Seafood, Meat, Vegetable, and Tofu, with a back page dedicated to Chef Special-New Dishes and a wine and beer list. The menu also boasted a three-page photo spread of popular dishes. This cheat sheet came in handy, but didn’t help sell the restaurant as an “authentic” Sichuan restaurant. A small standing menu sat on each table and listed the Top 10 Appetizers and Top 15 Main Courses (again, helpful, but didn’t quite create that authentic experience).
I started off with their well-known Pork Soup Dumplings and Dan Dan Noodles. The Pork Soup Dumplings were little juicy balls of heaven. Once the dumpling was safely on my spoon, I dug my chopstick into the dough to create a small hole to slurp up the pork-essence broth. Eventually, the dumpling was deflated enough to take small bites of the meat and a harmony of broth and salted garlicky pork filled my mouth with joy. As the Dan Dan noodles arrived, my waiter asked if he could stir the noodles properly, insisting that many people did not tackle Dan Dan noodles properly. He gracefully spooned the vegetables and minced pork from the bottom of the dish until the noodles were evenly coated. The noodles reminded me more of a Cold Sesame Noodle dish. The noodles weren’t as white and delicate as Legend’s and I found the sauce to be too soupy and salty. Legend’s Dan Dan Noodles were more restrained with a less-is-more sort of attitude.
For entrees I had the Crispy Shrimp with Sichuan Sauce and the Braised Beef with Chili Sauce. The Crispy Shrimp was plated with water chestnuts, a spongy mushroom, and blanched broccoli. The shrimp was deep fried and tossed with a ginger style sauce. The shrimp were good, but the thick fried coating took away from the experience. The sauce reminded me of General Tso’s so I was a bit disappointed. The braised beef was almost like a soup. The beef was thinly sliced and served in a bowl filled with the signature red chili sauce, cabbage, and bok choy. I was warned about the spice level of this dish, which was appreciated. The beef was a bit chewy and the sauce a tad spicy for my liking. The words “mouth numbing” come to mind. But I was warned so I can’t complain.
In conclusion, I found the service to be more friendly in Grand Sichuan. The waiters were very eager to talk you through the dishes, assist with any questions, and warn eaters about the spice level. Despite the friendly service, bigger portions, and Pork Soup Dumpling wisdom, I must say I preferred the newcomer to the neighborhood. The flavors I experienced in Legend were more refined, delicate, and sophisticated. I am eagerly looking forward to my next trip to Legend.
(Click photos below to enlarge.)
Marisa Olsen is the creator of Les Foodités, a blog for people who love food. Les Foodités explores recipes, culinary news, and restaurants reviews in New York City. Lesfoodités.net. All photos courtesy of Les Foodites.