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The Artful Diner writes restaurant reviews for nj.com. To receive e-mail notification when a new review or article is posted, send a note to artfuldiner@worldnet.att.net.

New Jersey Restaurant Review

Great Szechuan
Highway 34 & Lloyd Road
Aberdeen, Monmouth County, New Jersey
(732) 583-3333
(Restaurant Now Closed)

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
5/18/1998

Think it's easy to lay your hands on a moderately-priced Chinese restaurant that serves up excellent food? Trust me, it isn't... And I've been scouring the culinary countryside for more years than I'd care to count.

That's why Great Szechuan is such an exceptional find. Not only does it serve up authentic Chinese cuisine with flair, it does so with the freshest of ingredients. Even more astounding, however, is discovering this little gem in such an improbable location. Sequestered in a Grand Union shopping center that has obviously seen better days, it is rather ignominiously sandwiched between a vacant storefront and a card and gift shop. And the interior isn't about to wow you either. It's the typical arrangement: glass-topped tables and booths, a rather colorless decor. But the food is anything but typical.

Not that you can't order the usual run-of-the-mill conglomeration of nondescript Americanized Oriental fare. It's all here: the ubiquitous wonton soup and egg rolls, chow mein and chop suey, moo goo gai pan and fried rice. And you may rest assured that these plebeian items are raised to an infinitely higher level than in most other establishments. But what a waste--of both your discerning palate and of the kitchen's considerable capabilities. Instead, keep you eyes peeled for the daily specials, or order items from the special Chinese menu, and you will ultimately be rewarded.

Seafood is the acid test of Chinese cookery, and here it is at the very peak of good health and exquisitely prepared. Okay, so maybe frog or peppercorn squid or braised sea cucumber (read here "slug") with soy sauce isn't quite your cup of tea... But the shrimp dishes are simply marvelous. As are the razor clams in black bean sauce. Ditto the sautéed scallops in X.O. sauce, a luxurious, liquor-infused melange that takes your taste buds on step beyond.

And the kitchen is equally at home with finny fare. The style of preparation most favored by the Chinese is to steam the fish whole and then serve it up with ginger, scallions and cilantro. Both the sea bass and red snapper are excellent choices. Once again, however, don't be afraid to try something a bit out of the ordinary. A casserole of grouper and bean curd swimming in a delightful garlic sauce, for example, is like nothing you have ever encountered at table before; so utterly simple... yet so incomparably sublime. As is the crispy flounder filet. Pieces of flounder are pan-fried and then sautéed again in a special blend of soy sauce, garlic, wine, ginger, sundry spices, assorted veggies and exotic fungi. An absolute delight.

On the other hand, if you are decidedly carnivorous by nature, a word of advice: When dining in a Chinese eatery, always choose the other white meat. Since chefs have been serving up pork in an entirely civilized manner for untold centuries, their expertise is positively beyond reproach. Go for either the shredded pork with dry bean curd or the Peking ribs... You won't be disappointed.

If your salivary glands haven't kicked into overdrive already, perhaps a few final recommendations will do the trick. The first is an appetizing dish of pan-fried noodles adorned with shredded pork and tiny shrimp. The second is a special of sautéed rice cakes prepared Shanghai-style. Once you sample the thoroughly addictive complexity of flavors and textures inherent in these two exceptional entrees... trust me... fried rice may never again pass your lips.

In addition to the exciting food, you'll also appreciate the service here. Friendly and knowledgeable waiters are always at the ready to answer questions regarding ingredients or methods of preparation. There's none of that stone-faced stoicism occasionally encountered in other Chinese establishments. The members of the staff, it appears, take their cue from the owners, Tom and Betty Shen. Casually attired, the affable Mr. Shen is an omnipresent figure in his diminutive culinary domain: seating newcomers... bestowing a complimentary cup of rice wine here... a sample of totally beguiling red bean, black sweet rice and coconut soup on the house there... or simply chatting amiably with his guests. He never appears to be too busy to attend to his customers' needs, either in person or over the telephone.

But the bottom line is equally important... Depending upon your gastronomic inclinations on a given evening, you will find Great Szechuan's tariffs either in the inexpensive or moderate category. And since dessert and coffee are entirely superfluous in most Oriental eateries, and you may also BYOB, count on saving some additional revenue. But no matter how much long green you may be in the mood to part with, be assured that you will receive infinitely MORE than your money's worth.

Before my wife and I had actually lifted a chopstick at Great Szechuan, I made an initial stop to take a gander at the menus and do a little reconnaissance work. I didn't identify myself, but simply told Mr. Shen that I'd heard marvelous things about his restaurant and looked forward to dining with him in the near future.

"You'll like my food," he said with an ingratiating smile.

... How right he was!

Hours: Mon - Thurs, 11:30 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 11:30 a.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, 1:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: AX, MC, V
Attire: Casual
Smoking: One room, but smoking is permitted in rear of dining area only
Reservations: Accepted
Parking: Ample shopping center parking

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