Mao Zedong once said: “No chillies, no revolution.”
This spicy, tongue-numbing bellicosity has become the beating drum to Sichuan cuisine’s march towards world domination. Yet assuming that the style of food doesn’t go any deeper than these flavours is a reductive view of Sichuan province’s rich food culture.
Part of that tradition can be savoured at Birds of a Feather, a restaurant on Amoy Street anchored by Western techniques but sails on the winds of Sichuan flavours. The kitchens have now gone even deeper into the cuisine’s roots thanks to the many visits the team makes to Chengdu, the capital of the province.
The result? A new menu inspired by greater Sichuan nuances with ingredients, techniques and flavours that educate the mind as much as feed the soul. The aim here isn’t on claiming authenticity; it’s about providing an entry point to the cuisine for those looking to dip their toes into the style of cooking without feeling overwhelmed.
Go light and start your meal with the Oxtail Soup served with a shatteringly crisp spring onion arlette ($24). The mark of a good soup is often its depth of flavour, and while the Sichuan original harnesses the richness of pig’s trotters, beef neck bones are used here as the base of the stock. The tender chunks bathed in the soup is a Western white oxtail served with scallion oil, spring onions and ginger. The arlette meanwhile is a riff off the cong you bing — spring onion pancakes where instead of an unleavened dough, are laminated puff pastry shaped into a thin oblong disk.
These two elements are delicious both eaten together and on its own, but it’s the moreish sauce served on the side that has us swooning. Here, a simple combination of soy sauce, ginger, Sichuan pepper oil, garlic and fresh coriander deliver such massive flavour that one wonders why the restaurant hasn’t yet bottled the condiment and sold it by the batch.
Save some of this sauce and use it as a dip for the Charcoal Grilled Pork Bits ($15) — a dish inspired by the street food stands that line buzzing intersections, parks and bars pedalling spiced skewers. It’s savoury and sings of garlic and cumin; reflecting Chengdu’s role as the entry point of the Southern Silk Road where spices were once traded.
If these still feel like safe, familiar options, take things a step further and order the Good Slime Shine ($24) in the spicy version. The name might raise eyebrows, but the dish really comprises thick yam noodles soaked for a good half hour until it turns soft and slippery, and then cooked in a sour stock of vegetables and garlic. The noodles itself are imported from Sichuan province and cooked al dente so there’s plenty of bite as you slurp up the sour sauce it’s lathered in. Our tip? Don’t order this if you have a meeting after lunch.
A more office-friendly dish to order would be the Forbidden Risotto ($35). This unmistakably leans much further west than the rest of the options but it’s given such an enigmatic name for a reason. The rice used here is black rice — a variety Chinese aristocrats once withheld from public consumption. It’s cooked the classic way with butter, cream and parmesan cheese but the addition of sour vegetables and pickled ginger on top of a medley of seafood gives the dish a real lift.
Those with a sweet tooth won’t be left out either. Where the cuisine is known for burning in the belly long after the meal is over, its sweet treats soothe like a cool drink on a blistering hot day. The ice jelly dessert arrives with dramatic wisps of dry ice. Here, the cold jelly is dressed with fruit, crushed peanuts, a granite made from rice wine and burnt cucumber brought together by a red sugar caramel.
It’s the perfect end to the meal, perhaps one that’s a notch spicier than the rest of the offerings on Amoy Street. Yet given the recent spate of restaurant closures of late — one of which is Blackwattle just a few doors down, that just might be the defining factor that lets Birds of a Feather stand out.
After all, in the words of Chairman Mao, “No chillies, no revolution.”
Daily from 10 am to 11 pm
Recommended dishes: Good slime shine, charcoal grilled pork bits, Sichuan oxtail soup.
Price: $75++ (at lunch)
Noise Level: Low