Inspired by the many sea creatures we've spotted at the Qingshiqiao fish and seafood market in the city center we went on some search missions around the area until we found the Prince Restaurant, part of an impressive culinary empire that stretches all over China
The sprawling eatery occupies the entire south wing of the fifth floor of Fortune City. After passing table upon table of locals chowing down on "Western steaks" and inspecting their foie gras, we were seated in the back of the restaurant on a U-shaped kickback couch arranged next to the open kitchen. We flipped through the thick menu, which might be better described as a bilingual illustrated encyclopedia of edible things. Anything and everything moving was featured: lobsters, abalone, turtle, various preparations of prohibitively expensive shark's fin and bird's nest.
As tempted as we were to order the "sea penis" (aka the "fat innkeeper worm"—no, we didn't make that up) for Dan, Mega Bites doesn't have a mega budget, and at RMB500 per plate, we had to refuse in favor of a more tame selection. In the meanwhile, our waitress was growing visibly impatient, so we settled on the sea cucumber in abalone sauce (鲍汁扣辽参) and the jellyfish heads in vinegar (醋香蛰头). We originally ordered the Chinese forest frog in papaya (木瓜炖雪蛤) for an exotic dessert, but Dan decided to switch it for spicy Sichuanese frog legs and threw in a safe laowai order of kungpao chicken.
Just before our food arrived, construction noise started coming from the kitchen, and this special touch to the ambience endured throughout the rest of our meal. When the sea cucumber arrived Dan took some shots and starred skeptically at the Pikachu-like character. We cut the slippery beast in two, and, fumbling, Dan immediately dropped his thumb-sized half on the tablecloth. After some chopstick slapstick he finally managed to take a bite:
"Ew. It's like eating a ghost—a mix of cartilage and jelly. You know it's there, but it feels like nothing. But the taste is really bad."
"To be fair, it's a brainless animal that mainly feeds on algae and other sea creatures' waste. Maybe all you have to do is to take a bigger bite."
After all these years, Dandoval still listens to us—and consequently spit the remnants of the slimy thumb out two seconds later.
"One of the worst things I've tried in my life." (From Dan, that's saying something.)
After a supposed palate-clearing swig of Coke, Dan was ready for the next dish: jellyfish.
"Not bad." Dan chewed indulgently, comparing the texture and taste of the jellyfish to silver mu'er. "It has a wobbly texture that goes hand in hand with the crunchy cucumber slices. And somehow despite its spiciness it's a pleasant and chilling dish that cools you down in the summer heat."
When the frog legs arrived we were back in Sichuanese waters: "That mala kicks in, but it's much more fragrant than usual." Indeed, it was a more sophisticated tingle than the typical extreme mala knock out. Dan's mood lightened up with every dish, and he was most pleased with the kungpao chicken at the end, which tastes more refined that what you're usually served in Chengdu these days, with a perfect balance of spiciness and even a touch of sweetness to the perfectly done, big, juicy dices of chicken.
Apart from the RMB128 sea cucumber, we cleaned up all the dishes. We weren't charged for the second bowl of rice that arrived late, but somehow ended up paying RMB10 each for two glasses of room-temperature water. Although the plates themselves were huge, the portions were all on the small side, and at RMB345 for four dishes for two people, it was no free—or even cheap—lunch.
Unless you're buying into Chinese esotericism, the fresh sea cumber is a dish you can won't regret having not crossed off your bucket list (if it was ever on there in the first place), and if it's just about the (unfounded, by the way) claims to its aphrodisiacal effects, you can get the dry sea cucumber much cheaper at the markets. On the upside, none of the dishes were oily or fatty, and overall a lot of care seems to go in the food preparation of even the most standard dishes.
Overall, Prince Kitchen is a centrally located place with comfy seating and marked-up prices that can be justified if you're in a spendy mood with an experimental appetite. Just make sure to order a tasty safety net to fall back on and be ready to overlook minor annoyances.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 65 ("animals").
Photos by Dan Sandoval.