Dark carved wood, polished and abundant, makes a handsome backdrop for glass-encased, decorative vases and other stately appointments. Gently tinkling music, sometimes classical, wafts around private booths. The atmosphere is serene.

Dark carved wood, polished and abundant, makes a handsome backdrop for glass-encased, decorative vases and other stately appointments. Gently tinkling music, sometimes classical, wafts around private booths. The atmosphere is serene.

Then the food arrives. And quicker than you can say "Why did you just drink all my water?" the tranquil mood explodes in the ferocious and fiery flavors of Sichuan Province.

Welcome to Hong Kong House.

Formerly named Hong Kong Buffet, the roomy and rambling Northwest Side eatery 86ed its steam table-theme last year, hired a new chef (Kewu Chen, previously a restaurateur in Sichuan, China) and tastefully renovated its two dining rooms and bar. The changes have transformed an OK place into a terrific "destination restaurant."

Now, after being seated, you're offered two menus: one says "menu" on it, and the other one says - I have no idea, because I don't read Chinese. But I do know Chinese food well, and you want that second menu. Unlike the cliche-filled first menu, it's brimming over with authentic Sichuan dishes.

If you're new to real Sichuan fare, Sichuan 101 is understanding the yin-and-yang allure described by the Chinese phrase "mala." Translating to "numbing" (ma) and "spicy hot" (la), mala refers to the bewitching interplay of Sichuan peppercorns and capsaicin.

Because of their their tingling and numbing, Novocaine-like effect on tongues, citrusy-flavored Sichuan peppercorns enable diners to tolerate higher doses of chili. Add in other potent ingredients such as garlic, ginger and leeks, and you have a cuisine that's a veritable amusement park for the taste buds.

After wetting your beak with a suitable "fire extinguisher" - the small wine list includes a good match for Sichuan food in sweet-yet-crisp-finishing Pacific Rim riesling ($22 per bottle) - get your mala feet wet with the Sichuan Pickles ($5).

A treat rarely seen in Columbus, this salty and crunchy, diced vegetable medley (cabbage, celery, carrots) is easy on the chili flake sting, but heavy on the numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Note: It's sized for sharing, as everything on this menu is.

Some other menu notes: Eating through that behemoth could take years and would include many arcane dishes, so this review concentrates on Sichuan cuisine's more approachable greatest hits. In general, I'll proceed from slightly spicy plates to full-on, consciousness-altering conflagrations.

The Dan Dan Noodles ($6) are an unintimidating Sichuan entryway - long strands of pasta in a nutty and delicious sauce flaunting that mala quality and, as with many dishes, rich with chili oil.

Just a splash of chili oil - along with vinegar, sesame oil, garlic and soy sauce - compose the dressing for the refreshing Sichuan Style Cucumber ($8), a delightful vegetable salad. It's a great accompaniment to any meal.

Like expertly made popcorn chicken? If so, and you don't mind a little sting, a touch of garlic and a wild rush of crushed Sichuan peppercorns, then you'll love Crispy Diced Chicken Chongqing Style ($12) as much as I do.

Bean Curd Home Style ($10.50) is skillfully fried tofu planks livened by a not-fiery sauce flavored with ginger, ground pork, chili flakes, garlic and jalapeno.

The soupy Poached Sliced Fish in Hot Chili Sauce ($13) is another wonderful entree. It's practically a vat of uncommonly tender whitefish curls plus vegetables (Napa cabbage, sprouts, leeks, onions) swamped in a complex and zesty broth awash in chili oil.

Griddle Cauliflower in Hot Sauce ($12) is a dramatic knockout. A metal bowl above a Sterno flame holds a colorful jumble of mala-mad veggies gurgling in a volatile sauce. Though radically different from the Lamb with Cumin ($14) - which has meat so tender and spicy that it melts in your mouth as it melts your mouth - they're both firebreathing, but nuanced, masterpieces.