Today I went for lunch with a colleague and two well known faces in the UK restaurant industry. Based on the recommendation of P we frequented a lovely place in Soho, where the expression "comfortably numb" was filled with a whole new meaning for me. (Picture from Eastern Journeys.)
Bar Shu specialises in Sichuanese cooking (a different spelling that I until today would have used is "Szechuan"), and according to themselves they are the biggest genuine Sichuan restaurant in Europe. Where as I am mostly used to the Cantonese style of Chinese cooking (this seems to be the most common style of Chinese restaurants) which is rather mild, Sichuan style food is packed with hot chile pepper punch.
Located on the corner of Frith Street and Old Compton Street in Soho you have an excellent view of the bustling Soho night life if you go there for dinner. In our case we went there for lunch and on this particular day which I would say was the first day of summer in London (here comes the heat...) the street was full of people walking around enjoying the sun with big smiles on their faces.
Having read a great review in the Daily Telegraph about the place I was quite excited about going here and I was not disappointed. As we arrived P and R were already there with a frosty cold Tsing-tao each in front of them. Looking through the menu, which is quite interesting with dishes like "Man and Wife Offal Slices" and "Phoenix Greens" all beautifully illustrated with big photos (very helpful indeed in this case...) we decided to let P pick out an assortment of starters and mains to try.
Starters seem to all be served cold and the serving style is definitely geared towards ordering a number of dishes together and then try them all since we only had small bowls to put the food in as it was served in pots and on trays. Works perfect for me, I love ordering a bunch of stuff and sample it all. Among the starters the cold duck in spicy sauce and egg in duck roll were my favorites. The egg in duck roll showed that the Sichuan food isn't all extremely spicy, while the cold duck gave a hint of what was to come.
Not directly fire breathing hot the chile flavour of the food was very pleasant and not at all over powering. In fact, I think "hot" is the wrong word since although the spiciness of the chile was noticeable in all the dishes except the duck roll each dish we tried had a different taste, clearly present on top of the chile flavor.
Reading up a bit on Sichuan cooking I found this:
Sichuan food is famous for its many flavors, and almost every dish has its own unique taste. This is because many flavorings and seasonings are produced in Sichuan Province. These include soy sauce from Zhongba, cooking vinegar from baoning, special vinegar from Sanhui, fermented soy beans from Tongchuan, hot pickled mustard tubers from Fuling, chili sauce from Chongqing, thick, broad – bean sauce from Pixian, and well salt from Zigong.
Well, Bar Shu certainly lives up to that description, I very much enjoyed the variety of flavors. If there is such a thing as short attention span when it comes to flavors, I think I certainly suffer from it... Which is probably why I love tapas and dim sum so much.
Moving on to the mains we had sea bass, a variety of spicy haricots verts and a pot dish with various kinds of meat (mostly offal slices...) and vegetables which had a "three chiles warning" in the menu.
The sea bass was great, very well cooked and decorated with a spicy crust. It was about here that the expression "comfortably numb" sprung to mind. I started to feel a tingly, yet numb sensation on my tongue, as if I had had some sort of anaesthetic. Very interesting feeling, especially since I could still perfectly taste the food! Apparently, as I found out while doing some creative sichuan googling, this is a common way of describing the effects of Sichuan food and the secret lies in a specific type of pepper called "Sichuan pepper" or "numbing pepper":
Sichuan pepper has a unique aroma and flavour that is not hot or pungent like black or red peppers, and has slight lemony overtones, but with a kind of tingly numbness (caused by its 3% of hydroxy-alpha-sanshool) that sets the stage for these hot spices.
That quote hits the nail spot on when it comes to describing the spicy yet not over poweringly hot chile undertone of all the dishes.
Trying not to think about the ingredients in the big pot of mixed meats (I am not a big fan of any kind of offal food...) I tried a particularly slimy looking piece of oily meat and to my great surprise it was delicious! Don't really understand why the "three chiles warning" was there, it wasn't very hot at all. Perhaps they tone the really strong dishes down a bit for lunch time. Or maybe my tongue was too numbed...
R wasn't impressed at all with the offal dish though. To be frank, he seemed to find it quite apalling. C joined his camp while me and P fervently tried to defend the dish, finding it really interesting and tasty. I don't think it is for everyone however...
To finish the meal we ordered a bowl each of chicken broth soup, and after all the spicy food this was mild and pleasant to the palate. The taste was absolutely delish and even though I am really uncomfortable with the Chinese way of serving poultry with pieces of bone still in it I actually found this to be one of the best dishes of the entire meal.
Even without the great company of P and R, who are full of interesting facts and stories about the restaurant industry (which I am currently trying to wrap my head around what with my focus on restaurant booking services as of late) this would have been an amazing lunch. My only real bother with Bar Shu was the staff. They were helpful and friendly, but not very good at answering questions and several times we had to remind them about what we had ordered. Not a very professional impression, which was a shame considering that I found most other aspects of the place quite endearing. I will definitely go there again for dinner, to see what that's like.
All this pleasantry came at a price. Starters and mains for four, with two beers each came to about £120 in total. Considering the pretty generous size of the dishes and the multitude of pleasing flavours and great presentation I'd say it is pretty good value for money even though it is quite steep.
If you want to try a different Chinese food experience, I would absolutely recommend giving Bar Shu a try.
URL: Great Daily Telegraph review, have to try the "hot pot"!
URL: MetroLife on Bar Shu by Marina O'Loughlin
URL: TimeOut review, they like Bar Shu too
URL: FT on Bar Shu with lots of good background information from Fuchsia Dunlop, one of the persons involved in developing the Bar Shu concept
URL: Wikipedia on Sichuan (Szechuan) cuisine
URL: About Sichuan cooking (1)
URL: About Sichuan cooking (2)