I’ve been enjoying my culinary ventures into other regional Chinese cuisines (beyond Cantonese and Pekinese) since coming across Fuschia Dunlop’s fascinating work a couple of years ago.
More recently, Dr G and I were lucky to be accompanied by a connoisseur of such cuisines, Mr Noodles of Eat Noodles Love Noodles, as we visited the newly opened Empress of Sichuan in London’s Chinatown.
The decor is simple but tasteful, although I would not describe it as an elegant restaurant. It occupies the premises of the late Keelung and has maintained much of its predecessor’s furnishings and decor.
Ordering was carefully done by Mr Noodles apart from the fish dish which was chosen by Dr G. I felt that all dishes were outstanding with the exception of the Dan Dan noodles which were good, but unfortunately not on a par with the other dishes.
The “Beef slices in extremely spicy soup” @ £12.50 (also known as “Boiled Beef Slices in a Fiery Sauce” – shui zhu niu rou) was, as expected, rich and deliciously hot. The meat had a light and silken texture - a superb example of a dish I have tasted many times before.
The “Fragrant chicken with dried chilli and pepper” @ £13 was also excellent and bursting with flavour and the aromas of chillies and Sichuan pepper.
I was slightly disappointed with the “Dan Dan noodles” @ £4.80. It was more like a noodle soup and it missed one of my favourite ingredients “Ya Cai” a type of Sichuanese preserved mustard green which imparts an extra layer of complexity to this dish.
The “Farmers Fish” (baked fish with spring onion, cumin and black bean) @ £21.50 was by far the most successful dish of the evening. The crust of spring onions, cumin and black bean in which the fish had been baked had some complex flavours – it was sweet, spicy and salty, and went incredibly well with the white fish.
To accompany our mains, we also had “Spicy green beans with minced pork and preserved vegetables” @ £8.50 and various portions of steamed rice @ £2.50 each. The spicy greens dish is a must for any visit to Sichuanese restaurants, and Empress of Sichuan’s did not disappoint.
The beans were dry-fried until tender and slightly wrinkled, and had a subtle sourness from the Shaoxing wine and soya sauce in which they were cooked.
Service was attentive and very friendly. The manager came to speak to us towards the end of our meal and offered us some complimentary tea. She explained that the restaurant was offering a 20% discount in the month of January and most of February during weekdays, as well as giving us some background information on their Sichuanese chef and current management.
The total bill came to £81 (or £27 each), including service, 5 beers @ £3.50 each and 20% discount. Prices are about 50% higher than some of the budget Sichuanese restaurants in London.
Even though some may feel that this is a tad high for a midweek meal, in my opinion, Empress of Sichuan offers incredible value for the level of sophistication and the high standard of cooking.
Empress of Sichuan is definitely a cut above any other Sichuanese restaurants I have been to in London or abroad including Chilli Cool or Gourmet San, the latter being not exclusively Sichuanese. After years of avoiding Chinatown as a destination for authentic Chinese food, I am very pleased to have found a restaurant that stands out from the tourist haunts.
Verdict – Excellent Sichuanese cooking at mid-range prices in comfortable surroundings in the heart of Chinatown. I hope this, along with other recent openings in the area, may herald the revival of Chinatown as a centre of excellent Chinese cooking. Highly recommended.