Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Off the Map: This Isn't Fear Factor, You Know

Sliced Fish Szechuan Style -- Gourmet Dumpling House, Boston, MA
Gourmet Dumpling House

Overeater who is originally from the Boston area: Ginger.

Overeater who has now consumed all ten Best Thing I Ever Ate Boston-area dishes: Vodka.

Sometimes blogs, as in life, do not make sense.

Vodka ventured to Boston recently under the guise of "college roommate visitation."  In truth, she had ambushed said former roommate weeks earlier with the mission of cramming all ten Best Thing I Ever Ate Boston locations into a less-than-48-hour itinerary.
"The Whack-Job Is Coming! The Whack-Job Is Coming!"
Because Vodka's friends are apparently just as anal-retentive as she is, said roommate had pulled together a full spreadsheet of tour stops within a matter of days, and so Vodka makes her way to Boston with an empty stomach in tow.  Trotting from the bus station directly to Chinatown, Vodka finds the first stop on her self-imposed New England Best Thing I Ever Ate tour, the Gourmet Dumpling House, featuring Ming Tsai's favorite BETTER THAN MINE dish, the sliced fish Szechuan style.
Taking an Inconspicuous Chinatown Arch Picture = Impossible
Walking in through the bodega-like storefront, Vodka is confronted with a crowd of diners, significant because it is both 3:30 in the afternoon on a Thursday (doesn't anyone work anymore?!) and because Vodka appears to be just about Gourmet Dumpling House's only customer of European descent.

At least, I suppose, we can chalk this place up as being "authentic."
Although for Unknown Reasons, the Host Insists on Seating Everyone at the BACK of the Restaurant
Securing my place as a foreigner in this locale, I cannot get it through my thick head that my desired dish is called "sliced fish" rather than "sliced shrimp," as I refer to it by the latter term at least eighteen times.  Additionally, I have no knowledge of the fact that "Szechuan style" translates roughly to "burn your mouth off in fire-breathing, throat-scorching agony."
I Need an English-to-Food-Network Translator
In retrospect, I should have known better.  After all, I had a vague recollection of the BETTER THAN MINE episode in which Ming Tsai slowly sweats to death while consuming a scalding bowl of soup, but I figured it could not have been any worse than the dish of pure peppers which we had eaten at Devi months before.

For the record, the sliced fish Szechuan style makes the mirchi ka salan taste like a cupcake.
And All the Tea in the Universe Can't Do Much to Combat It
First of all, the size of the dish itself is ridiculous, enough for at least four excessive eaters like us.  As I am supposed to meet my friend in an hour, I send her a picture of the overflowing bowl with the only this caption: 
"I May Be A While"
Second of all, the smell of spice is so strong that it would be enough to take down three bottles of smelling salts, let alone to clear my sinuses.
Oh No - Not the Red Pepper Flakes... ANYTHING But the Red Pepper Flakes
And third of all, the temperature of the soup appears to be "just short of boiling," at least that is what my recently unclogged pores tell me.
Chinatown's Most Prestigious Spa
Taking one glance at the overload of red pepper flakes covering the top of the soup, I ask for an additional glass of water before I even begin.  The waiter, to his credit, does not openly mock either my choice of a dish or my hydration pre-game, though considering I can't understand much of what the workers are saying amongst themselves, I can only assume that at least part of their conversation consists of, "Let's watch this loser die right in front of us, Szechuan style."
Cause of Death: Stupidity
Unable to stall any longer, I scoop up my first tentative spoonful, blow on it with hurricane strength winds, and taste.

And this, the first taste of the 492 it would take to reach the bottom of this bowl, is more pleasing than one would think.  The white fish itself is nicely cooked, smooth and buttery to the point that it hardly requires chewing.  At first, both the temperature and spiciness is so high that it is hard to tell from where the burning comes, but I assume that my mouth is simply reaching the required level of numbness that will be necessary for the rest of the dish's completion.

And then I take a second bite.  And I am convinced that death is imminent.
As Her Inheritance, Ginger Will Gain Only the Remainder of My Boston Itinerary
Recalling that when the contestants on Chefs versus City have to eat spicy things, they won't drink water until they are finished, I try to do the same.  Unfortunately, I can barely swallow a second spoonful of the soup before diving directly for my water glass.  Those blasted red pepper flakes, which I am convinced are, along with parsley, my personal nemesis, are not only slowly killing me, but most likely also ruining my palate for the rest of the day's eating adventures.  Though there is also a proliferation of cumin in the bowl, the taste of pure, evil pepper is so overwhelming that all other flavors take a backseat.

After a grand total of six spoonfuls, my throat burns to such a high degree that I am convinced that I am going to keel over and die in the streets of Chinatown Boston without even Ginger to save me.  Scrambling to find the Wheat Thins I have hidden in my bag, I try to suppress the fire in my mouth with reduced-fat crackers and small cups of tea.  In the midst of this recovery, another customer stops by my table to ask what I'm eating, a question which the waiter is forced to answer when I can only manage to mumble "Very spicy" with my heat-laden tongue.
I Should've Hired the Ducklings As My Interpreters
I ask for the waiter to pack up a small carton of the soup to bring to my friend to try, if only to confirm that it is the dish itself, and not my weak spice palate, that is causing all of this damage (and as we confirm in Starbucks an hour later, the soup is slightly more agreeable when lukewarm, but still deathly spicy).

In the end, I've decided that I cannot in good conscience give this dish any more than 2 stars, even if the sliced fish itself was rather pleasing.  After all, if I cannot physically take more than ten bites, let alone finish the thing, it just can't rank very high.  This isn't Fear Factor -- it's a self-inflicted Food Network eating tour.  And if either of us feel as though we have reached the last of our days by anything other than indigestion, we are torturing ourselves in all of the wrong ways.

Gourmet Dumpling House's Sliced Fish Szechuan Style: 2 stars


  1. I am SO glad you wrote this. I am headed to Boston on Thursday for a few rounds of good food and I will be sure to NOT stop at this place!

  2. In their defense, the rest of their food looked better, or at least less lethal.... Vodka's scorched taste buds, however, would probably still encourage you to steer clear.