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Tuesday 8 April 2014

Getting Hot Under the Collar at Er Mei!

Words & Photography by Florentyna Leow and Luiz Hara

Name: Er Mei (Former Empress of Sichuan)

Where: 6-7 Lisle Street London WC2H 7BG Tel: 0207-734-8128 http://www.ermei.co.uk/

Cost: £2 - £31.50 for starters; approximately £8 - £30 for mains (seafood mains are priced around £20 to £30 but these are sharing platters).

About: Er Mei is a Sichuanese restaurant on Lisle Street, a stone's throw away from the Prince of Charles Cinema behind Chinatown. We previously reviewed it when it used to be known as the Empress of Sichuan (see review here), but a change of ownership brought about their new name as well as a new head chef, Yi Ge, and a few additions to the menu. We had a splendid meal at the Empress of Sichuan in 2010, but does Er Mei live up to the standard set by its predecessor?

With an extensive list of enticing dishes to choose from, we spent a long while debating over our choices but eventually decided to order a completely different meal from the one we enjoyed on our last visit. In fact, there we so many dishes we wanted to try that we ended up requesting smaller-sized portions of the main dishes for the purposes of this review. The starters looked the most intriguing, and our consensus afterwards was that you could certainly have a very fine meal consisting of their many appetisers alone.

What We Ate: We began with one of the hot starters, the Sichuan-style Grilled Lamb Skewer. At £2.00 per skewer, it was a real bargain – incredibly flavourful and tender and well seasoned with cumin, garlic, chilli, spring onions and whole Sichuan peppercorns. I would have happily had a dinner consisting of several skewers and a bowl of rice.

The Marinated Chicken Slices in Spicy Sauce @£7.50 is a dish I have fond memories of – when I used to live near King's Cross, I would often stop by Chilli Cool for this starter alone. Er Mei's rendition is one of the most memorable versions I have tasted yet – cool, refreshing slices of thigh meat drenched in a subtly spicy soy sauce-based dressing with a numbing kick from Sichuan peppercorns, showered with crushed peanuts and garlic pieces both fried and raw.

The Pork Belly Slices with Garlic and Chilli Sauce (£7.50) was also quite delicious, albeit a little salty for my taste. We both agreed that given a choice we would choose the chicken over the pork belly; however, either would make a good starter.

The only starter that we didn't enjoy was the Marinated Cucumber with Fragrant Sesame Paste, which was poor value at £6.00 a plate. While the cucumber alone was a good palate cleanser, it hadn't been marinated, but simply sliced and presented on a platter, with a sub-par sesame dressing poured over it. It was disappointing.

Our main dishes were generally well-executed and almost any of them would have been perfect for sharing between two for a meal. The Ma Po Tofu (£9.50) was an enjoyable version of a Sichuanese classic, with a slow, tingling burn from the Sichuan pepper. In retrospect, I would have to agree with my dining companion who pointed out that it could have used more flavour than spiciness – perhaps a little more chilli bean paste could solve this problem.

Our next dish was a slight mistake on our part – we ordered the Sea-Spiced Three Vegetables (£10.00), thinking it referred to a variation on the famous fish-fragrant aubergine dish. Instead, the fish-fragrant aubergine dish was listed in English as 'Spicy Aubergine With Minced Meat' in case you would like to order it on your visit.

'Sea-spiced,' according to our waitress referred to the oyster sauce used in the dish we ordered. What arrived on our table was actually a more Northern Chinese-style dish of juicy, deep-fried aubergines, potatoes and red peppers tossed in a sweet, thick, glossy sauce. While it was well done, both of us thought it could have used a little balancing acidity (vinegar) to freshen up the dish and reduce the sauce’s gloopiness.

Er Mei's Kung Pao Chicken (£12.80) was an excellent version of this popular dish, with the addition of peanuts and Sichuan peppercorns that lent it a more traditional touch.

Our waitress enthusiastically recommended that we order the ‘Chilli Cod with Coriander and Onions’ (£25), and we were very glad to have taken her at her word – this was one of the best dishes of the night. Thin slices of deep-fried cod, rich and buttery within and crunchy without; sweet, crisp cubes of onions and red pepper; the flavour of the umami-rich fermented black beans permeating each bite. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water. The seafood mains were generally on the expensive side, and this was no different, but I would gladly order it again.

We decided to order a dish from their special New Year's Menu – the Red & Green Chilli Pig's Joint (£15.80) – this was utterly delicious. What would normally be such a rich and heavy cut of meat when braised turned out to be surprisingly refreshing when bathed in a tangy, flavourful sauce. Do not miss the skin and other parts surrounding the meat – it was not fatty, but tender and gelatinous, and a real joy to eat.

What We Drank: We had a pot of hot Chinese tea (£1.50 per person), which went down well with our meal. Be warned that their menu does not list all the varieties of tea available, even in Chinese. Instead of the usual jasmine tea, try asking for Tie Guan Yin (Iron Goddess) or Pu-er tea – both are oolong teas, great for washing down a rich meal!

Er Mei also has a respectable selection of wines to choose from – 10 reds, 13 whites and 2 roses. Their house red and white wines are a mere £15.90 per bottle, and there are 4 other wines on the list which are priced below £20. Tiger or Tsing Tsao beers priced at £3.60, while Sunlik draft beer cost £2.50 for a half and £4.50 for a pint.

Likes: The cooking is good and occasionally stunning – the chilli cod, lamb skewer and marinated chicken point to some magic happening in the kitchen.

Dislikes: Skip the cucumber.

Verdict: Not your average cheap-and-cheerful Chinese joint, Er Mei is probably one of the best Sichuanese restaurants in London. Highly recommended.

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