When I mentioned that I was visiting SHU restaurant in Fairfield, someone inevitably said, “I didn’t know Sacred Heart University opened a restaurant!”
A common misunderstanding but, in fact, SHU is local slang for Chengdu, the capital city in China’s Szechuan province. Think of it like calling Philadelphia “Philly” or San Francisco “Frisco”
SHU, on the Post Road in downtown Fairfield is the second outpost of the popular restaurant created by Chef Xinyu Huang, three years ago. Huang spent much of his career as a culinary arts professor in Chengdu before emigrating to the United States and working in restaurants in Chinatown and Connecticut.
“My goal was to create a restaurant that was dramatically different from American Chinese food,” said Huang, through a translator. “The cuisine of Szechuan is considered one of the great culinary styles of China, and I wanted to share authentic dishes with both American and Chinese American diners.”
Indeed, Huang has demonstrated a knack for creating restaurant environments and menus that are equally appealing to the most traditional Chinese diner as well as to American restaurant goers. SHU Hartford and the newly opened HAN Hot Pot, also in Hartford, both feature airy elegant, modern décor with elements of classic Chinese design and the Fairfield location is no different.
However, it is the food that is the real standout at SHU. Szechuan cuisine—and the chefs that produce it—is among the most revered and extremely popular of the eight culinary styles of China. In imperial times, the majority of court cooks came from Szechuan. It is a culinary style most noted for its masterful use of sauces—not unlike foundational French cuisine.
Diners will find things that are familiar including fried rice and noodle dishes, kung pao chicken, wanton soup and eggplant and garlic sauce along with truly authentic items like Pig Ear Salad, House Style Diced Rabbit, Chengdu Rice Bean Jello and more.
True to authentic form, most of SHU’s dishes feature a goodly amount of chili peppers—a hallmark of Szechuan cooking, along with garlic, scallion, Szechuan red pepper corns, and a spicy red bean sauce, made from fermented fava beans and a specialty of Pi County in the province.
“This seasoning paste can be thought of as one of the primary colors of taste,” says Huang. “We can create a whole palette of flavor with this ingredient.”
While Szechuan cooking features twenty-four traditional sauces, Chef Huang marries western ingredients to built upon these sauces and develop unique flavors for his dishes. He also keeps a bead on the food trends in China for unique, new options that might be popular in his restaurants.
Chef Huang has some suggestions for newcomers easing into Chengdu style cooking including Twice Cooked pork, Napa Beef and Ma Pao Tofu.
We started the meal with Cucumber in Minced Garlic and Chengdu Dumplings. The hearty crunch of cucumber and mild taste was a perfect carrier for spicy garlic sauce and the Chengdu Dumplings were nothing short of spectacular with a filling to casing ratio that was just right. It was hard not to simply make a meal of them. SHU makes all of their dumplings in house and each is worth trying.
Next was the whole fried sea bass (Squirrel Fish) and it was outstanding. The artfully formed deboned fish is deep fried without a trace of greasiness and served “swimming” in a spicy sweet sauce that dressed the meat which fell right off the bone, with just the right amount of flavor and not a trace of heaviness.
With many vegetable dishes to choose from, non-meat eaters will find plenty to satisfy them at SHU. We tried the asparagus lettuce with wood ear mushrooms was light with a pleasant texture not unlike gently cooked squash. (Asparagus lettuce neither asparagus or lettuce but a heavy stemmed leafy green sometimes called stem lettuce.) The cold cucumber in spicy sauce appetizer married the cooling crunch of the cucumbers with hot chili oil in a surprisingly brilliant combination.
Regardless of your choices the servers at SHU are extremely knowledgeable and eager to share information about authentic Chengdu style cooking. Even if you’ve never experienced real Szechuan provincial fare, you’ll surely come away satisfied and eager for more.
SHU Fairfield is open for lunch and dinner and also offers a lunch special.
1795 Post Rd, Fairfield, CT 06824