When a new Sichuan restaurant opens, there's often a lot of interest. Sichuan is arguably the most popular of China's four major cuisines, thanks to its bold, addictive, spicy flavors.
For Fey, which opened last year in Menlo Park, the interest has been even greater since it received Bib Gourmand recognition from the Michelin Guide just months after opening.
Fey, which took over the spot on El Camino Real formerly occupied by Ten Fu, is owned by a family that has run Sichuan restaurants on the Peninsula for two decades. Nondescript from the outside, the squat, mid-century building has been extensively remodeled and redecorated inside. Updates include shimmering light fixtures, comfortable gray booths and a wall in the front dining room covered with a school of sculpted silver fish. There's also a rear dining room with round tables for large parties and a plush private banquet space.
Fey's menu isn't published on its website, so we felt completely overwhelmed by the voluminous list of dishes presented when we arrived. With nearly 200 items (not including hot pot selections), I wondered how a kitchen could possibly turn out that many dishes well. (As it turned out, it couldn't.)
On one visit, servers came to our table three times in the first few minutes to take our order. On another, we had to explain repeatedly that we were waiting for more people to join us.
While continuing to wade through menu options, we ordered a green onion pancake ($3.95). On one visit, it was oily and bland, but that was easily corrected by adding soy sauce. Another time, it was less oily though still bland, but there was no soy sauce on our table. Fortunately, some sauce left from shrimp and chive dumplings ($8.95), along with chili sauce, added the missing flavor. Those dumplings, by the way, were good. With a dozen to an order, they make a nice starter for a large party.
Next we chose wonton soup ($5.95/$7.95), since on the way to our table, we saw a young man making the wontons. Although one member of our party said the broth lacked depth, others found it pleasantly subtle. The flavor built with each spoonful. The wontons had silken wrappers and a well-seasoned pork filling with strong hints of ginger.
We tried a few classic Sichuan dishes, including Kung Pao chicken and Ma-po tofu pork, which were clearly listed, though some menu items don't make sense to non-Mandarin readers.
The selections are divided into meat groups, vegetables, noodles and rice, as well as hot pot dishes. There's also a section curiously labeled "Family Traditional Private Kitchen," which includes a bit of everything. That's where we found the well-known Sichuan dish dan dan noodles ($7.50), though they were described in English as "hot noodles with spicy peanut sauce."
To identify some other quintessential Sichuan dishes, I'd turned to books by Fuchsia Dunlop, perhaps the foremost Western authority on Sichuan cuisine. Her favorite is something called "fish fragrant" eggplant. When I asked about it at Fey, none of the servers understood what I wanted. After looking up the Chinese characters, I discovered the Fey menu calls its "fish fragrant" dishes "a la Sichuan."
Thank goodness for that homework; the eggplant ($8.95) was well worth the effort. It came in a restrained sweet-and-sour sauce that didn't actually contain fish. This dish was one of our favorites, and I would happily go back to try the other "a la Sichuan" dishes.
Another favorite was the Dongpo side pork ($19.95), a slow-braised shank in a fragrant sauce laced generously with ginger. The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender, and the accompanying broccoli had been cooked to a perfect crisp-tender state.
The dan dan noodles were somewhat appealing, but didn't rise to the level of the two previous dishes. They were chewy, not gummy, but the thick peanut-heavy sauce lacked spice.
Surprisingly, none of us liked the Kung Pao chicken ($9.95). It exuded a vinegarlike pungency, and the texture of the chicken was soft and rubbery, as if it had spent too long in a tenderizing agent. The sauce was overly sweet, and we longed for considerably more spice. (Next time, I might try the Chongqing spicy diced chicken from the "private kitchen" menu, instead.)
The Ma-po tofu pork ($9.50), however, was lovely -- with quivering cubes of tofu and diced pork bathed lightly in a sauce that left my lips and tongue pleasantly numb. The spiciest of the dishes we sampled, Xinjiang fried cumin lamb ($11.95), had an intoxicating aroma, but was heavy on onions and peppers, rather than meat. Some of the lamb was unpleasantly fatty, though the lean bits were crisp and delicious.
Steamed rice ($1.50) is included with only the lunch specials, but pots of hot tea are complimentary. Fey's wines are not expensive, but they're uninspired.
To be sure, Fey's menu is so extensive that finding the gems can feel a bit like searching for a needle in a haystack. But what this restaurant does well, it does quite well. More than a week after my last visit, I was still thinking about the best dishes -- and wanting to go back for more.
Email Jennifer Graue at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1368 El Camino Real
The Dish: Devotees of Sichuan cuisine will sit up and take notice at this restaurant.
Prices: Appetizers and soup, $3.95-$9.95; main courses, $7.50-$19.95; lunch specials, $7.25-$7.95; beer and wine by the glass, $4.50-$6; wine by the bottle, $20-$35.
Details: Fey's owners, longtime players on the Peninsula's Sichuan scene, have created a pleasant, upscale space that belies the modest exterior.
Pluses: Nice atmosphere with updated, attractive decor; service is quick and generally attentive, sometimes to a fault.
Minuses: The menu is so big it's overwhelming; quality of the dishes is inconsistent; communication can be challenging at times.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Sunday
Restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously. The Mercury News pays for all meals.