Cindy and I have harboured vague intentions to visit Dainty Sichuan since Claire posted a glorious picture of the fish-flavoured eggplant some years back. We weren't really sure how much else on the menu would be that exciting for vegetarians, so we held off for a while and then just kind of forgot about it... at least until vegan about town and The Simple Eater both wrote great reviews of all the veggie dishes on offer. Our enthusiasm renewed, we headed across town to meet up with a small group of friends and sample as much spicy goodness as we could handle.
Dainty Sichuan is big but popular, so making a booking is probably wise - they weren't full to bursting on the Sunday night we attended, but there are plenty of reports of people having to queue to get a table, so I wouldn't take any chances. The interior is pleasant without being very atmospheric - just lots of people and a strong scent of chilli oil (and a rather odd photo of a shirtless man slamming Sichuan food, which is sadly just out of show below).
The menu is pretty meaty, but there are easily enough vegetarian dishes to feed a big group - our group of six we didn't even order all the options available and we still ended up with uneaten leftovers. Almost all the vegetarian dishes are vegan (except for the ones that are obviously eggy) - everything we ate was suitable for vegans. We had a couple of criteria for ordering: I wanted the mapo tofu (minus the pork) and Cindy wanted at least one serve of the eggplant. Having made that clear, we left the choices to one of our group who knew the menu well and ordered for the table.
The first two dishes to arrive were the tasty cold noodle (chilli oil and sichuan pepper, $6.80) and the black fungus with wild chilli (pickled chilli, $13.80). I was a bit sceptical about both - cold noodles? Hmm. Weird fungusy things? Double hmm. My fears were misplace though - the cold noodles was one of my favourite dishes of the night, bursting with the distinctive tingly spiciness of sichuan peppers and loaded up with nuts and a few herbs. The sauce was king here - I wound up pouring the leftovers on my rice.
The fungus dish was pretty great as well (at least if you can handle the texture, which isn't Cindy's thing at all). It had a much sharper heat than the noodles, and was among the hottest dishes of the night. I probably wouldn't order a whole serve for myself, but quite enjoyed the few scoops that I chowed down.
The rest of the dishes all came out in a bit of a flurry. First up, Ma Po Tofu (chilli and sichuan pepper, minus the pork mince, $19.80)
Look at all that chilli oil! I was in heaven. Cindy found it all a bit much, so tread carefully if you're not big on spiciness, but I thought it was excellent - oily, a bit sweet and bursting with sichuan pepper goodness.
Fish flavoured eggplant (pickled chilli, sweet and sour, $19.80):
This was another massive success - the batter is sweet and a little bit crispy but with a strong kick in there somewhere. The eggplant itself is just a vessel for all the wonderful flavours wrapped around them, but that's probably eggplants best role anyway. Go there. Order this. That's the key message of this review.
And while you're there, order this: tofu threads with (Chinese) leek ($20.80).
This is a milder dish, but one that I loved - something about the way they cook the tofu makes it incredibly delicious. I think oil is involved again. Being Dainty Sechuan, it's still got a bit of a chilli kick (especially if you don't pick the actual chillies out), but the flavours are a bit more subtle.
Who could resist something called potato threads with hot capsicum ($17.80)? Not us. Oily fried strings of potato with a pretty potent sauce and lots of chillies dotted throughout. Yum. Although probably another dish it's best to share with a group.
And finally, in a vain gesture towards healthiness: stir-fried seasonal green vegetables (the menu says seasonal price, and we forgot to get an itemised receipt).
This was fine, but really a bit of a waste - we were all too focussed on the culinary fireworks going off in our mouths to spend much time on a plate of plain greens. I'd skip it and order more eggplant next time.
In my roundup of other blog reviews (see below) I came across a pretty steady stream of complaints about the service at Dainty - while our service wouldn't win prizes, it was efficient and at least passably friendly. And even shoddy service would be worth putting up with for the food - we'll definitely be visiting again (or even checking out the city location).
vegan about town and The Simple Eater have also given Dainty Sichuan the thumbs up from a meat-free perspective.
There are loads of other positive reviews as well, although lots of them mention pretty mediocre service - check out Babameswara, melbourne gastronome, doublecooked, food.loves.my.mouth, sooks-food-notes, Let Me Feed You: Melbourne, peach-water, The Ortolan's Last Meal, tirache, Diary of a Pampered Housewife, mochii eats, Mouth to Mouth, Welcome to I-Destination, The Chronicles of Ms I-Hua, Almost Always Ravenous, Feed Me Australia, Off the spork, half-eaten, Lady Noms, Sharking for chips and drinks, Ipoh Mali Talak Sombong, I'm Hungry, the indolent cook, Melbourne Food Review, EAT AND BE MERRY FOR TOMORROW WE DIE(T), MEL: HOT OR NOT, One Fat Cow, Let's Get Fat Together, Addictive and consuming, JOSHUAONGYS, cookbook, bookeat, Tales of a confectionist, because I can't cook, Food for your; stomach, confessions of a little piggy, Food of the Soul, Conversation with Jenny, Gastronomical ramblings and Gastrology.
Melbourne Culinary Journal was the only blog I could find who were really not very impressed.
176 Toorak Road, South Yarra
vegetarian dishes: $6.80-$19.80
Accessibility: There's a handful of steps up to the entry. Things are relatively spread out when you enter, but the tables are jammed pretty tightly and things all feel a bit crowded. We didn't visit the toilets.