It can be a risky proposition to name a restaurant after a single dish. Because that dish had better be good. And so on cue, as though to illustrate the pitfalls of the proverb, the stylish new Chinese restaurant called DanDan serves a version of its namesake noodle dish that is decidedly . . . so-so.
What's frustrating is that DanDan, in so many other ways, is a welcome dose of authentic Sichuan and Taiwanese flavors near Rittenhouse Square, with a sharp contemporary space, ambitious owners, and the potential to become an adventurous new favorite in a posh zip code that can always benefit from a little more earthy spice.
And there are numerous other dishes on the big menu here that are more worthy of the naming rights. If only Catherina "Cat" Huang and her husband, Kevin, had called their place "Dry Pot" or "Three Cup" or "Taiwanese Burger Shack," this review might be starting on a brighter note.
But as "DanDan" is literally spelled out in tall marquee lights that rise beside the staircase up to the lantern-lit glow and rustic bare-wood tables of the second-floor mezzanine dining room, that famous Sichuan noodle dish is where we must begin.
The noodles come here with a measure of showmanship drama, tossed tableside in an orange heat balm of chili oil and crumbles of minced pork. But the noodles are a little mushy. There's so much sesame paste in the sauce it's sticky on the lips. There are some fermented veggies in the mix, but not enough to give it the necessary lift of a pickled twang. And the subtleties that ultimately elevate better versions of not just dandan, but Sichuan cooking in general - the soft aromatics that bloom in the hot fantail of chilies and numbing peppercorns - are more muted than they could be.
Of course, the same bowl might well be a sensation for first-time dandanites. But Philly is no longer starting from Sichuan ground zero. Han Dynasty set that bar very high several years ago with dandan as its signature dish. And it remains my gold standard based on a bowl my friends (kids included) devoured in a frenzy one recent night at the branch in Cherry Hill.
The intrigue, of course, smacks something of sibling rivalry because no one needs to remind Cat Huang about Philly's Sichuan kingpin. She happens to be Han Chiang's big sister, and with Kevin, she ran his University City branch for a few years.
One could hardly blame her for hiring a New York chef, Jun Du, to help her pursue her "own adventure" with this ambitious 55-seater on 16th Street, though one of their chefs - Chef Ha, who specializes in dandan noodles and dumplings - is from Han Dynasty University City.
And little brother's long shadow notwithstanding, they've created something here with genuine neighborhood value.
Architect George Poulin of Strada did a lot to maximize the tiny footprint by adding a mezzanine for extra seating, putting a large kitchen in the basement and a horseshoe bar on the ground floor to stoke a buzz of community and modern style.
I wasn't a big fan of DanDan's cocktails, which had fun Asian twists (plum bitters, Thai basil) but uninspired craftsmanship for the $12 prices. The mildly interesting Jameson shot spiked with pepper puree and chili oil called the Handy Nasty Shooter ("Oh, yes, we did," the menu winked) tasted like boozey gazpacho.
The small craft beer selection was spot-on, with the kind of brews - Allagash White, Brooklyn Sorachi Ace, Duchesse de Bourgogne - that are ideal for quenching heat. And DanDan has an impressively well-versed and outgoing service staff to help diners navigate the big menu beyond those noodles.
Among the highlights to begin were crunchy cold cucumbers lit with chili-steeped red soy and minced garlic. Flaky scallion pancakes and roasted links of sweet Taiwanese sausage with raw garlic chips were perfect to set the taste buds humming. The Taiwanese "burger," meanwhile, could become one of my new favorite snacks, its puffy white bao bun stuffed with a gingery slab of pork belly glazed in sweet soy dusted with peanut powder.
There was classic "numbing heat" of Sichuan spice in some solid appetizer standards glazed in chili oil, like the snappy mound of thin-sliced tripe and beef tongue, and the thick-skinned comfort of sesame-dusted dumplings and their more sheerly wrapped wonton counterparts.
But DanDan's finesse was most notable in some of the more soft-spoken dishes that speak to the Huangs' Taiwanese youth (even if Cat's paternal grandma always cooked Sichuan). Those wontons, whose fillings are tinged with ginger juice, are fantastic simply in classic wonton chicken soup, the slow-steeped broth pale with a natural hue warmed by a hint of sesame oil.
Fresh baby shrimp are perfectly poached and come refreshingly chilled in a bright green scallion puree speckled with tart red goji berries. The Taiwanese classic called three cup chicken was notable for the tenderness of its meat and the measured sweetness of its dark sesame-soy glaze brightened with basil leaves. Fresh basil - a telltale flourish of Taiwanese cooking - also accents the delicacy of tender Manila clams stir-fried with Shaoxing wine, fermented black beans, and a flicker of spice. Another Taiwanese comfort classic, minced pork over rice, comes here cut into soft larger cubes (vs. the usual ground meat) in a regional variation typical of Kevin's home on the island's southern end.
That Taiwanese pride is somewhat novel for Center City, but Sichuan fire is what fills the seats. And DanDan delivers some fine renditions of familiar favorites. Tender threads of garlic pork bask in a complex brown sauce that glints with sourness, sweetness, bitterness, and smoke. A "dry pot" brings spice-dusted flounder fillets with crunchy bamboo shoots and black mushrooms in a mini-wok whose orange brew bubbled hot over an open flame. It was a wonder something so bold could also be so delicate.
There were letdowns. The cumin lamb was too saucy for my tastes. And though I loved the funky depth of pickled mustard greens in the tangy pumpkin broth of the spicy-sour "brew pot" - the overcooked wad of thin-sliced rib eye on top was disappointing (at $25, one of DanDan's pricier dishes). But there were no such problems with the spicy Sichuan beef noodle soup, whose tender chunks of stewed meat bobbed in rusty dark chili broth enriched with salty-sweet broad bean paste.
Some of DanDan's best moves, though, gave a mild-mannered pause from all the spice. Tender shreds of boneless duck braised in gingery sweet soy were irresistible. A beautifully deboned "flying fish" - whole red snapper carved into a ring of fillets still attached at the end - was perfectly crisped beneath a tea-colored sauce sweet and tangy with ground pickled chilies.
One of the most memorable, though, was vegetarian, a plate of long-stemmed Bunapi white beech mushrooms that had been fried inside a sheer salt-baked-style crust gilded to a vivid yellow with the yolk of duck eggs. The style is called "Golden Dish," which actually wouldn't make a bad restaurant name at all. It's also one of the many dishes here - beyond those mushy noodles - that DanDan's kitchen delivers well.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Lloyd Whiskey Bar in Fishtown.
VERY GOOD (2 bells out of 4)
126 S. 16th St., 215-800-1165; dandanrestaurant.com
Rittenhouse Square gets a double dose of authentic Chinese flavors with the Sichuan heat and Taiwanese sweetness being served at this stylish newcomer from husband-wife duo Kevin and Catherina "Cat" Huang - Han Chiang's big sister. Though the Han Dynasty comparisons are inevitable (spoiler: little bro's dandan noodles are still the best), this ambitious newcomer still has plenty of bold and worthy flavors in its own right to offer Center City West, with outgoing service and a modern bilevel space that should become an asset to the neighborhood.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Crispy cucumbers; scallion shrimp; beef and tripe in chili oil; fried Taiwanese sausage; dumplings or wontons in chili oil; wonton soup; spicy Sichuan beef noodle soup; ginger shredded duck; flying whole fish; beef in fermented black bean sauce; kung pao chicken; garlic sauced pork; dry pot fish; golden dish Bunapi mushrooms; three cup chicken; spicy basil clams; Taiwanese pork belly hamburger; vegetarian string beans.
DRINKS The cocktails highlight Asian flavors - ginger and plum bitters in an Old Fashioned; chili oil and pepper puree in a Jameson shooter - but the craftsmanship lacks finesse for the prices. There are a handful of commercial wines (the Urban Riesling is smart for the Sichuan spice), but the best bet for quality and value are the craft beers, including an Allagash White, Brooklyn Sorachi Ace ale, and sour Duchesse de Bourgone that pair well with the menu.
WEEKEND NOISE The compact mezzanine-stuffed space hits an extremely noisy 93 decibels. The hard surfaces only amp the din. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday, 3-10 p.m.; Friday, until 10:30; Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
All major cards.
Reservations suggested for dinner. No reservations accepted for lunch.
Validated parking with sticker costs $12 at Central Parking lot at 1616 Sansom St.