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Friday 6 June 2014

Bar Shu - The Heat is On!

Name: Bar Shu

Where: 28 Frith Street, Soho, London W1D 5LF, http://www.barshurestaurant.co.uk

Cost: Appetisers range from £6.90 to £12.90, with an appetiser platter for 2 costing £24.90. Vegetable, fish and meat dishes to share are priced from £9.90 to £32.90 for lobster with sizzling spices.

About: The first of a quartet of Sichuanese restaurants in Soho opened by restauranteur Shao Wei with consultancy from Fuschia Dunlop, its sister restaurants include Ba Shan (reviewed here), Baozi Inn and Baiwei (reviewed here). Bar Shu, at the busy corner between Frith and Romilly Streets, is the flagship of the group, with quality of cooking and prices to match. 

It has a restful aesthetic of varnished wood floors and tables, with flashes of bright red from the lanterns, paintings and even the bottles on display behind the bar. There are huge plate glass windows across the full width of the restaurant, giving excellent views of the hustle and bustle of Soho.

Bar Shu serves food from Sichuan in southwest China, characterized by fiery spiciness, with liberal use of chillies and lip-tingling Sichuan pepper. Bar Shu offers a menu of seductive 'fish fragrant' combinations of pickled chillies, ginger, garlic and spring onion, as well as 'numbing and hot' flavoured dishes, and the refreshing tones of 'ginger juice' sauces.

What We Ate: Sichuanese meals traditionally begin with a set of cold appetisers, designed to arouse the senses as our waitress explained. With that in mind, we opted for a range of appetisers to explore hot, sweet and spicy aspects of the cuisine, as well as a range of textures from crunchy to glutinous. 

As is typical of the region, all our appetisers were served at once. They included Northern Sichuan Pea Jelly - strips of peastarch jelly in a sauce made from black beans, chilli oil and vinegar (£7.90). A famous Sichuanese snack, the jelly is neutral in flavour, but soaks up the lovely umami flavour from the black beans, while peanuts give a nice crunchy texture.

Sweet and sour spare ribs (£8.90) were also delicious - served cold, they had a touch of ginger, with sweet and sour undertones making them very refreshing.

The cloud ear fungus with coriander and chillies (£6.90) consisted for crunchy black fungus (akin to mushrooms), served with a delicate sour and hot dressing and laced with sliced fiercely hot red chillies.

One of my favourite appetisers were the thinly sliced pork rolls with finely julienned carrots and daikon in a spicy garlic sauce (£8.90).

The Man-and-Wife Tripe dish, named after a couple of Chengdu street vendors of the 1930s came highly recommended by our waitress and it did not disappoint. This consisted of mixed beef tripe with peanuts in a rather spicy sauce (£7.90).

I love smacked cucumbers (£6.90), and Bar Shu's version had preserved mustard greens, garlic and sesame sauce, and were delicious.

The sliced whelk with green Sichuan pepper (£10.90) were served with fresh red and green peppers in a delicious wasabi dressing. The slivers of finely cut raw celery gave a good crunchy texture and made the dish quite refreshing and well balanced.

For our main course, we went for the signature dish of boiled seabass with beansprouts and sizzling chilli oil (£28.90). A spectacular dish of tender fish and aromatic spices, with dried chillies and Sichuan peppercorns, this was an excellent centrepiece for our meal.

The custom is not to eat the chillies, and our waitress removed them before serving. The seabass had wonderfully fragrant, tender flesh with citrus flavours entirely from the Sichuan peppercorns.

Our second main course was Gong Bao prawns with cashew nuts (£18.90). Mildly spicy with garlic, chilli, Sichuan pepper and celery, this dish had huge prawns that were very meaty but meltingly tender. It was delicious, and definitely a crowd pleaser.

To accompany our fish and seafood course, we had three vegetable dishes:

Fish-fragrant aubergines braised with minced pork (£9.90) is one of my favourite vegetable dishes to eat in Sichuanese restaurants.  The term 'fish-fragrant' used to describe Sichuanese sauces is a technically a misnomer because there is no fish in it, but it refers to the spices used to cook fish. With vinegar, ginger and very mild chilli, the aubergines had a refreshing flavour, while being tender and luscious without disintegrating. A real winner.

The dry-fried green beans (£9.90), cooked with minced pork and ya çai (a preserved mustard green from Yibin in Sichuan) is another classic of Sichuanese cuisine. Bar Shu's was very well made with the beans blistered from a very hot wok, but still crunchy. I use ya çai (known as zacai in Japan) in my Japanese cooking, and I love the crunchy texture and savoury quality it brings to dishes.  With the minced pork and beans, it made a great combination of textures and flavours.

Finally mabodofu, or "Pock-marked Old Woman's Beancurd" (£9.90), consisted of little cubes of tofu with minced pork in a fiery Sichuanese pepper sauce which was rich, sweet and sour at the same time. This Sichuanese dish is hugely popular in Japan, where a much more delicate version is usually seen.

What We Drank: We share a bottle of 2011 Alsatian Gewürztraminer by Domaine Gocker (£34.90). This was a very quaffable Alsatian wine with a perfumed nose of lychee, and on the tongue had flavours of peach and apricot. It went particularly well with our spicy dishes.

Whites and reds wines start from £23.90 (the house red and white are a Merlot and a Sauvignon Blanc, both from  Reserve de Rafegue, Languedoc, France). There is also a range of Chinese wines and sakes. Champagnes include a very reasonably priced Drappier NV for £49 and Veuve Clicquot for £69.

Likes: Delicious Sichuanese food, cooked with skill and finesse. The serving staff are truly knowledgeable about the food and can help select a very well balanced Sichuanese menu if asked. I enjoyed every dish we sampled, and would be hard-pressed to fault any of them.  Tap water is freely available and frequently topped up.

Dislikes: None

Verdict: Probably one of the best Chinese meals I have eaten in recent years, Bar Shu is my new favourite Sichuanese restaurant in London. Very highly recommended.

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