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Thursday, 17 April 2014

Baiwei: Affordable and Tasty Sichuanese Food in Chinatown

Name: Baiwei

Where: 8 Little Newport Street, London, WC2H 7JJ

Cost: Starters/appetizers from £4.90, mains from £6.50, average spend per person £20 or less excl. drinks

About: Baiwei (100 Flavours in Mandarin), is the latest venture by successful restaurateur Shao Wei, who introduced us to Barshu, Bashan (reviewed here) and Baozi Inn in Soho, with food consultancy by writer and Chinese food specialist Fuschia Dunlop.

Baiwei is the most casual and also the most affordable addition to the group. Situated in a tiny townhouse on Little Newport Street between Leicester Square and Charing Cross Road, the restaurant stretches across a number of tiny rooms and floors. Most of the rooms fit no more than two tables, and the walls are dotted with hand-painted images from the Mao era. It specialises in comfort food from Sichuan and northern China.

Service is efficient, fast and helpful – our waitress was very enthusiastic to explanation all our queries (there were many!) on the various dishes on the menu. I rarely come across a menu which intrigues me as much as to make me want to try most of its dishes – Baiwei’s was certainly one.

What We Ate: One of Baiwei’s signature dishes, the catfish with sizzling chilli oil (£8.90), actually made from fresh cod on our visit, was served in a huge earthenware pot in chillied oil and beans sprouts, the cod was succulent and delectably flavoured with cooling, lip numbing Sichuanese pink peppercorns. A delicious and umami-laden dish.

Smacked cucumbers with garlic and fresh coriander (£4.90) is a favourite of mine and a must for any Sichuanese meals – Baiwei’s did not disappoint, it was a refreshing, cooling accompaniment to the other hotter, spicier dishes.

The twice-cooked belly pork with black bean and chilli (8.90) stir-fried with peppers and leek was also flavoursome and tender.

Another Sichuanese favourite is the fish fragrant pork slivers (£8.90) with picked chilli, ginger, garlic and spring onion. This was very good, with mildly hot and refreshing sourness and acidity from the fish fragrant sauce.

The spicy stewed beef with tofu knots was both intriguing and well flavoured (£12.90) – the stewing broth had an intense richness with flavours of star anis, cinnamon and Sichuanese peppers, while the brisket beef was meltingly tender and gelatinous, a real joy.

However the tofu knots had a chewy and unfortunate stale flavour about them – this is something I sometimes encounter in Chinese dishes with deep-fried tofu as factories will sometimes re-use oil which should have been discarded for deep-frying. This stale flavour can be partially avoided by rinsing the tofu in running boiling water before cooking, something I always do when cooking deep-fried tofu.

The Northern Chinese dish of spicy sizzling lamb with cumin (£14.90) is such as staple and one I nearly always order. Baiwei's take was good despite being served with green peppers rather than green chillies as described on their menu (none the worse for that though in my opinion).

To accompany this protein-chilli laden feast, we had our token vegetable dish - dry fried green beans with minced pork and preserved mustard greens (£8.90), which was a perfect example of its kind and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

What We Drank: We enjoyed brown rice tea at £2 per person. The restaurant has a limited drinks menu with soft drinks and juices at £2.50 per glass, bottled water at £2.50, and one beer Tsing Tao for £3.50 a bottle.

Likes: The menu is large and well-illustrated, with a good range of Sichuanese, Hunanese and Northern Chinese dishes, with abundant dried and fresh chillies, Sichuan pepper, garlic and gelatinous cuts of meat.  Service is friendly and informative. 

Dislikes: Drinks menu is a tad limited – a glass of Coke for £2.50 is a little steep too. Tap water should be offered free of charge.

Verdict: A good & very affordable addition to the growing number of Sichuanese restaurants in Chinatown, introducing Londoners to regional Chinese dishes beyond the more familiar Cantonese staples. Recommended.

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