Mundane exterior masks accomplished Sichuan food

Scratching beneath the surface of H.Y. Asian Cuisine pays off dramatically for spicy food fans. Plus, it's a pretty good-looking surface.

From a mundane strip-mall entrance near enough to Ohio Stadium to hear the “O-H, I-O” cheers in the fall, you wouldn't guess how large and stylish H.Y. is inside. But spread across several distinct spaces is a casual, modern eatery with lacquered tables and gold cloth-backed chairs; handsome decorative stone accents; and a roomy sushi bar with ice-blue lighting.

To brace yourself for perusing its outrageously huge menu, I recommend a 22-ounce Sapporo beer ($6.50) — yes, the menu is that massive.

Steadied with this ballast, flipping through the confusing document should be less exasperating. You'll see plenty of sushi is offered. But so are American-Chinese classics. And there's a Pan-Asian, sauce-and-protein, mix-and-match section.

I could go on — and you should to — until reaching the white pages.

Unlike the rest of the yellow-tinted menu solely written in English, items in the white pages, which are the exclusive focus of this review, are described in English and Chinese characters. To get there is to hit pay dirt, because it's stumbling onto this restaurant's real attraction: accomplished Sichuan food.

Salty and liberally splashed with chili oil, the pleasantly chewy, pork-and-scallion Hot Spicy Dumplings ($6) are a good launch into H.Y.'s bold Sichuan cooking. The dynamite Dan Dan Noodles ($6) are an even better start.

Graced with ground pork, mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, plus a rich, salty-and-spicy sauce flaunting fermented bean, briny vegetable and peanut butter flavors, the noodles remind me of the Sichuan answer to lusty Italian pastas. Crispy roasted soybeans and scallions provide the crowning touches on this wonderful dish.

H.Y. nails another beloved cuisine mainstay: cauliflower served gurgling in a hot-pot adorned with an arsenal of Sichuan firepower (Dry Braised Cauliflower, $13). A large metal vessel aptly decorated with what looks like demon heads — and heated below by a candle — holds tender cauliflower florets and snipped leeks bathed in chili oil heavily garnished with pickled jalapenos, dried chilies, Sichuan peppercorns and sliced garlic. The delicious, enormous entree is best enjoyed with a fire-extinguisher of beer.

Enjoying beer is required with the Beer-Duck Casserole ($16). Because the casserole is armed with the same explosive seasonings found in the cauliflower dish, though, the undercurrent of brew in this stewy production is about as prominent as a cellist playing with a booming brass band. The combination is a hit, but be forewarned that its tender meat is attached to bone, fat and thick duck skin.

Surgical skills would also come in handy with the bone-bound meat in the excellent Lamb & Daikon Casserole ($16). Presented in an elaborate ceramic pot, this rustic preparation — which isn't as spicy-hot as other Sichuan offerings here — stars a knockout tomato-based broth with Mediterranean-style flavors. The lamb isn't in large supply, so rice (brown and white are available) plays a big part in the meal.

For something less aggressive and meatier, try the appealing Diced Chicken with Pickled Vegetables ($12). This mildly spicy dish rife with tender, lightly battered nuggets is a tad sweet, so it's a natural match for the addictive Sour Potato with Pepper ($10) — a salad-like haystack of potato matchsticks, bell peppers plus a few chilies “cooked” in vinegar.

It wasn't too long ago in Columbus when most food labeled “Chinese” bore little resemblance to the genuine article. Nowadays, purveyors of more authentic fare such as H.Y. — which premiered late last year — are popping up as often as shops limited to serving what you'll also find here if you don't scratch beneath its surface: commonplace American-Chinese dishes.