The Hop Alley team worked through a couple rounds of eggplant before settling on a steamed version with a sichuan bean sauce.
"We had been working on the dish and then we went to China Jade to eat a meal," chef Todd Somma shared. "They had a very classic, straightforward steamed eggplant and I said, 'This is better than every version we are making.'"
It was back to square one. After a week or so of tweaking, the cooks landed on brilliance. A spicy sauce became the base of the dish: house-made hot chili oil, bean paste, sugar, light soy sauce, salt, star anise, fennel, mustard seed, and white peppercorns.
The eggplants are steamed ahead of time, then heated again as the dish is ordered. They are then sliced, placed in the of the pool of sichuan sauce, and topped with a light and crunchy salad.
The salad is the ying to the sauce's yang. The cucumber, cilantro, Thai basil, pickled red onion, bean sprouts, and ginger cool the whole dish down, but also add texture. The eggplant is creamy, the sauce smooth, where the salad rounds it out into a crisp bite. The red onion is pickled in a Chinese red vinegar which adds a sweetness to the dish as well.
"We serve food in the Chinese style. Lots of dishes on the table, meant to be shared. In other types of cooking, the philosophy is that each plate is a well-balanced dish. In our style, the whole meal is supposed to be balanced. But you can definitely eat the eggplant alone and feel like you're getting a balanced flavor," says Somma.
The dish will probably never come off the menu of this RiNo hot spot, which is great news. The recommended drink pairing is something bubbly, a sparkling rose, or a beer. "Our Mutual Friend Brewery, right down the road, specifically made their Enter the 36 Barrels Saison to pair with our food. I don't think you can get it anywhere else right now."
Hop Alley is open Monday through Saturday for dinner only.