Chinatown’s Newcomer Turns Up The Heat
Regional Chinese cuisine is really taking off. Scores of Brits are finally waking up to the fact that China is actually pretty big, and made up of lots of different parts rather than being just a homogenised MSG-laden lump – a luminous, sticky sweet and sour stain on the world’s culinary map, as imagined by those of us with the more undeucated palates. Those of us whose palates passed their GCSE’s and went on to further education will know that there is so much more to Chinese food than can be found on the menu of your local takeaway.
On the subject of takeaways, in my previous “10 Crimes Against Food” article I touched on the fact that what we call Chinese food in England, isn’t. What we eat is a bastardised version of a centuries-old cuisine so vast and diverse that it could never possibly be summed up by a single menu – and certainly not a menu populated by dishes such as lemon chicken, chop suey and fortune cookies – which have about as much to do with China as the English Civil War. In the words of Bourdain, one could spend one’s entire life travelling around China eating and studying the food and they would never even scratch the surface. China is very much like a rich broth, the many different regions and provinces each contributing to the overall flavour with their own unique styles.
Sichuan is one such province. Located in the South West of China, its cuisine is known for being among the spiciest you’ll find anywhere in China, and indeed the world. The Sichuan pepper lends not only heat but also a unique, aromatic quality to the variety of Sichuan dishes. Up until now my only exposure to Sichuan (or Szechuan) cuisine has come in the form of those Blue Dragon sauce pouches you buy at the supermarket and pour over noodles you just got out of a packet and cooked in a wok you don’t know how to use properly. Obviously I’m not going to count that, and you shouldn’t either.
This past week, however, my girlfriend and I finally got around to using a Groupon voucher we’ve had for a while. Alison and I are quite fond of Groupon and have an eye for a good deal, so when we spotted Barshu among the list of offers we snapped it up as I have heard great things about it and have wanted to go there for a while. Located just off of Shaftesbury Avenue, not quite in the heart of Chinatown so much as the lower intestine, this place is all the rage at the moment and as we walked in it was easy to see why.
I don’t personally feel that the interior of a restaurant is as important as the quality of the food on offer. As long as a place is clean and the food is good, I could quite happily sit and stare at a white wall all night. But obviously if the owners have made an effort with the interior design then this will go a long way to assisting a restaurant in scoring bonus points. Barshu scored bonus points up to its elbow with it’s stylish interior – dark woods occasionally set ablaze by subtle splashes of red and yellow, and (predictably) Chinese motifs which were omnipresent but not overdone. It’s fair to say that Barshu is one of the most aesthetically pleasing restaurants in this part of town.
We began our meal with a platter of appetisers – tofu skins, mixed soybeans and vegetables, sweet and sour spare ribs, and bang bang chicken slivers. Each delicious in its own right, the four of them battling it out for the title of King Of The Appetisers.
The tofu skins were a new thing us both – their unique, silky texture gently accentuated by an oil-based dressing with a faint spring onion flavour, which didn’t hog the limelight. The soybeans and vegetables posed as filler but held their own against their meatier opponents and it became clear that they were not there just to make up the numbers. The spare ribs were delicious – the meat came off in one piece and danced in a sweet and sour sauce a million miles from the unnaturally bright orange incarnation we’re used to and about a million times better. But the star of the show were the chicken slivers. The bang bang sauce was smoky and wholesome and the high quality of the chicken used was evident in its taste. Overall we were off to a flying start.
Scallops with glass noodles were up next – they came served in their own shell which is a nice touch, also accompanied by a garlic-based sauce. The scallops themselves were two tasty delicious morsels, the noodles were light and fresh but ever so slightly watery, and the garlic sauce added another flavour profile to the mix without dominating. Now we were on a roll, and we quickly realised that leaving hungry was not going to be a possibility, as the food just kept on coming…
A plate of dumplings with a chilli oil dressing. Gong Bao prawns with cashew nuts. A beef stew loaded with red chillies. A mountain of dry-fried green beans. And finally a tofu dish with a chilli-based sauce. Each plate was big enough to be an entire meal in its own right. This feast would easily have fed four, maybe even five people. On top of this we were each given a generous scoop of boiled rice.
The Gong Bao prawns (above) were a real highlight, and the chefs at Barshu had succeeded in taking a king prawn and putting it in the forest. The dish had a distinctly woody flavour, aided by the cashew nuts and enough chilli to make its presence known without overwhelming the dish. The Sichuan peppers gave an amazing, almost perfume-like flavour. The dumplings were fairly average, a meaty filling inside a slippery pouch which was rather difficult to grasp – it’s worth noting that the chopstick skill level at Barshu is “advanced”.
The beef stew had a kick to it. This was the spiciest dish we encountered that night, with red chillies literally floating in the broth, however you could choose to avoid them as we did, thus lowering the searing burn to a manageable tingle. Underneath the heat was a nourishing, meaty broth loaded with chunks of luscious, delicate beef with a good meat-to-fat ratio, as well as some broad, flat, firmer-than-your-average noodles which I’d not seen before but which worked very well. This was a real Jekyll and Hyde dish, giving both comfort and discomfort in the same mouthful – a masterpiece. The tofu dish had a little heat to it too although I found it slightly lacking in flavour. It was an incredibly light dish, which was a good thing because we were both struggling at this point, our collective stomachs buckling under the avalanche of food on offer. I was literally ab0ut to burst out of my shirt (see below). The belly is on its way out now I have started boxing training. I’m hoping to use this photo as my “before” shot.
I read somewhere that in certain cultures it’s considered rude to finish all of your meal as it’s seen as questioning your host’s hospitality. By now I really hoped Sichuan was that part of China, because we were absolutely full and there was still enough food left to feed a small terracotta army. We were unable to finish everything but we gave it a good shot, and I think we did pretty well considering that you normally win a t-shirt for eating this much food in one sitting. The dumplings and the tofu were the only things that didn’t really lift the roof, but on the whole this was one of the best Chinese meals I have ever had.
Our overall experience at Barshu was one of many positives. The service was adequate, the atmosphere was pleasant, and the food overwhelmed us in more ways than one and on a couple of occasions completely blew us away (and not in terms of the chilli, which I sensed had been toned down somewhat for the English palate). In short I may have found a new favourite restaurant. I have to point out that the Groupon deal was the best we’ve had in terms of value for money, I also have to point out that the non-Groupon prices are a bit high, but you get what you pay for. If you’re on a budget then the Groupon is definitely worth it, but come with an appetite because you’ll need it.
Barshu is a pioneer for the regional Chinese food movement, and flies the flag proudly for Sichuan province. That’s one province down, only 23 more to go! (Plus 5 autonomous regions & 2 special administrative regions).
*Based on the prices for the regular menu, however special offers are available periodically.
Photos courtesy of Barshu Restaurant’s Website & Raven Garcia.