Like any cuisine, Sichuan lends itself to a variety of styles depending on the chef. Many of us first tasted its telltale ma-la (hot and numbing) flavors at Tasty China under the helm of Peter Chang. But it's only appropriate that newcomers would step onto the scene to give us more choices and spicy variations. Gu's Bistro (5750-A Buford Highway, Doraville, 770-451-8118) — one such newcomer — opened a little more than a month ago in the space that formerly housed Chong Qing Hot Pot.
The man behind the spice is chef Gu, a purported Chengdu native who used to cook at Sichuan House in Johns Creek. Along with his daughter Yvonne, Gu has already cultivated quite the following among Atlantans, so the restaurant is usually packed at lunchtime.
The thing that makes Gu's goods stand apart is how clean the food tastes. There's seldom too much of any component be it spice, salt or MSG. The "traditional menu" is immense and there are normally a few specials on the chalkboard at the front of the restaurant. Yes, there's an "American menu" for the unadventurous palates out there, but c'mon — why bother?
There's a long list of small bites, each a little more mysterious than the one before it. A little advice: The names don't always reflect what you'll be eating, for better or worse. Case in point, the Salt & Pepper Hair Tail, which is chunks of strongly flavored — and very bony — fish, coated in a light batter and fried. Other starters are more straightforward, like the seriously chewy shreds of homemade beef jerky doused in red chili oil and smothered with white sesame seeds.
Noodles and dumplings aren't an afterthought as they are at some Szechuan restaurants. Dan dan noodles are light and effortless — just a little pork, sauce and heat. Chilies, Szechuan peppercorns, salt, sweetness and chewy noodles create a symphony of flavors and textures in each slick bite of the Chengdu cold noodle dish. It alone is worth the visit. The Chengdu won tons, bobbing around in a chili oil-laden broth, are best when the thin skins are pierced so some of the liquid can permeate the ground pork interior. Flat and rectangular Zhong-style dumplings have slightly thicker skins, and the sauce is thick and salty with the tiniest hint of bitterness.
An immense vat of white, boneless fish filets tangled with firm noodles made from tofu skin, whole peanuts and a host of other ingredients gains intensity with each bite. Don't be fooled by the mildness of the fish. The heat will creep up on you. Fat and juicy crusty Szechuan-style spicy jumbo shrimp peek out from underneath mounds of al dente green bell peppers, onions, dried red chilies, slices of garlic and peanuts. Pieces of lamb encrusted with crunchy bits of crushed and toasted smoky cumin are tender, yet not as oily as you might expect given lamb's natural fattiness. Twice-cooked slices of pork belly are on the dry side and the meat's intense, almost gamey porkiness overwhelms the rest of the flavors in the dish. But one dish that best exemplifies the kitchen's soft hand is the tea leaf smoked duck with scallion and ginger. Slivers of smoky and slightly sweet duck are enlivened by the vibrancy of the fresh ginger and softened by the thin slices of onions. It's a nice counterpoint to the otherwise hearty fare.
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