Sichuan food is not just about the spice. There’s sweetness, savouriness, fish fragrance, and as Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop and Grand Majestic Sichuan head chef Theign Phan puts it, so much more. It’s all about balance.
If there’s one thing that sets Grand Majestic Sichuan apart from the plethora of Sichuan restaurants scattered across the city, it’s that with the authentic Sichuan menu is an extra special touch of the signature “Black Sheep Experience”.
Frequent patrons will know exactly what this means — the friendly welcome, transportive interiors and the team’s staunch commitment to making sure it’s always the best, most memorable of times, which, at Grand Majestic Sichuan, includes the little touches, such as the free-flow Champagne station that awaits guests whether they’re dining in or just passing through for a tipple.
That’s because Grand Majestic Sichuan isn’t designed to be like the other, oft tucked-away eateries. It was meant to be — for a lack of a better description — very grand, very majestic and very different from the traditional Chinese dining experience. Draped in luxurious velvet that emulates a ’70s-style supper club, the dining room’s ostentatious decor of lavish details extends to gleaming black marble tops, dizzying geometric carpets and a crane-print Gucci feature wall, all wrapped together with impeccable European-style service.
Which takes us to the kitchen. It’s not run by a multi-generational Chinese chef born and raised in Sichuan; rather, it’s the wonderful collaborative work of renowned Chinese food expert, Fuchsia Dunlop and head chef Theign Phan, previously of the group’s Saigonese-style grill house, Le Garçon Saigon. Together, they have created a menu — the area where Grand Majestic Sichuan stays truest to tradition — of classic Sichuan dishes that manages to fulfil a well-rounded dining experience based on balance — rather than the sweat-inducing, mouth-numbing fieriness that many may mistakenly expect.
“It’s true, of course, that one of the distinctive characteristics of Sichuan food is the spiciness and the numbing-ness — the mala (麻辣) “hot” — but that’s just a part of it,” Dunlop explains, “Because actually, it’s a very diverse and complex cuisine, and that’s what makes it so interesting and exciting.”
“Even in ‘Chilli Heat’, they use chillies in different forms: fresh, dried, picked, fermented in beans, made into chilli oil, Sichuan pepper… those seasonings are used together and separated in a dozen of different combinations.”
Dunlop continues. “Sichuan hot pot from Chongqing would be very mala and La Zi Ji (Chicken in a Pile of Chillies) is also very mala, but there are many other dishes like Fish Fragrant Aubergine Eggplant which is a bit spicy from the chilli bean paste, but it’s also got this sweet sourness — a more gentle flavour.”
A flip through Grand Majestic Sichuan’s menu will reveal an assortment of dishes; some hot, others cold. Some are soaked in chillis; others, not a fleck of red in sight. Again, it’s about the balance. All while hitting the complex, multi-layered checklist of over 20 fundamental flavour profiles, including spicy, garlicky, sweet, tingling, sour, savoury, bitter, flowery and smokey.
“Chinese food is so healthy and so balanced,” Dunlop adds. “That’s one thing that Westerners often don’t get about it. The idea is that you try and have a meal with a variety of different flavours. Some are very strongly flavoured and other are very delicate. It’s meant to be feel-good food that is also delicious and healthy — and balanced.”
And it’s not always easy to fulfil every little criterion. Something that Phan is slowly, but confidently, learning to understand.
“Leading the kitchen at Grand Majestic Sichuan, there are so many things that keep me interested and energised.” Phan shares. “I’ve been reading lots of books, and [working with Fuchsia] has also been amazing. It’s been inspiring for me. I’m reminding myself to not just focus on the operation, but the work. I have to stay curious. Participate and just stay curious.”
“I love the multi-layers of flavours [in Sichuan food],” she continues. “It’s not just about spicy and má (麻). I feel, especially in the last 10 months I’ve been [at Grand Majestic Sichuan], I realised there are so many types of flavours you can play with. It’s rich with a lot of different styles that I’m still learning.”
Another thing Phan has discovered is the excellent multi-purpose use of a wok. Which for any curious reader, include steaming, sautéing and deep-frying. “Anything!” Phan reaffirms.
However handy the wok may be, hours in a roaring Chinese kitchen are demanding. Still, Phan is determined to get a hand on the basics, breaking down the foundations of Sichuan cooking with food theories she’s familiar with, referencing her Western training and putting in the gruelling hard work. Being a female chef in a Chinese kitchen, however, is not one of her concerns. She shares, “Society has grown where it’s not so regimental, or about the whole si fu versus not. I find more challenges with my physique; I’m a bit petite.”
As for the elusive secret to a happy, harmonious kitchen? Phan credits it to the serendipitous arranging of a team. “It’s about yun fun (緣份, or fate),” she explains. “Sometimes you meet people that you clash with, but I had yun fun with this group, and they were incredibly welcoming.”
Another key element is Phan’s conscious prioritising of the well-being and the atmosphere of her team — “You see them more than you see your family,” she laughs. An open-minded willingness to reevaluate dishes and receive new ideas has helped Phan in cultivating a kitchen that’s constantly improving, however intimidating meeting the standards of traditional Chinese cuisine may feel. “We are constantly trying things. [But] one thing I tell myself is to stay humble and stay grounded,” she finishes.
Current dishes at Grand Majestic Sichuan might be a roster of beloved classics, but don’t expect things to stay the same. “There’s always room to introduce new dishes, changing things with the season and what guests like,” Dunlop revealed.
Phan adds, “With Grand Majestic Sichuan, we’re not trying to be out there. It’s not saying we don’t want to be innovative, but we just want to bring the heart of Sichuan food into this beautiful setting.”
It’s already evolved. The latest menu is a staunch representation of Dunlop and Phan’s partnership that stays loyal to the basics. Usual favourites are reimagined with small edits, including a switch of protein or an adjustment in spice levels — all without losing the original integrity of the dish. A few examples — and recommendations — to look out for: Gong Bao Long Xia, where fresh chunks of Australian spiny lobster are tossed with cashews in the signature Gong Bao sauce; Jiu Huang Bao Lu Rou made with venison tenderloin and yellow chives; and a shared favourite of both Dunlop and Phan, the Da Zha Xie Ma Po Dou Fu, now made with creamy golden roe from the seasonal hairy crab, or Da Zha Xie, which envelops the silky tofu squares.
“[Sichaun food] never becomes boring,” Dunlop muses. “I love it for its variety. Your palate is just taken from one place to another: highs and lows, spicy and not spicy. And so it’s really just food you could live off for the rest of your life and never get bored.”
It’s true. No Grand Majestic Sichuan experience will be the same and we’re willing to wager that by the time you make it through the current menu, there’s already something new to look forward to — and plough your way through — all over again.
Grand Majestic Sichuan is open for lunch daily from 12- 2:30pm; and dinner from 6-10pm on Sunday to Tuesday, 6-10:30pm on Wednesday and Thursday, and 6-10:45pm on Friday and Saturday. Reservations can be made here.