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Ba Shan: Sichuan tastes for a peppercorn rent…

I make it a slightly gluttonous habit to meet friends once a week for tea and cake. This is often preceeded by a dose of culture to make me feel more cosmopolitan. This week’s destination was The Ministry of Food at the Imperial War Museum to get a taste of rationing during the Second World War. Slightly despondant after the thought of Woolton Pie and the reliance on margarine seen at the exhibition, we left in search of cake made with real egg at Konditor & Cook at the Curzon Soho.

Yet somehow we found ourselves turning off Shaftesbury Avenue and onto Romilly Street and straight in Ba Shan, seeking little meaty dumplings and jasmine tea instead. I’m not quite sure how this change of carb craving took place so quickly, but I am very very glad that it did…

Ba Shan is lovely inside, all sleek dark wood and surprisingly airy with well sized tables that just cry out to be piled high with plates and dishes of deliciousness. It specialises in Sichuan cuisine like its sister restaurants Bar Shu and Baozi Inn along with the less oil-infused but equally spicy Hunanese cuisine and if either of those are anything to by, we were in for a real treat of spicy porky goodness like no other.

We were momentarily taken aback by the enormous gaudy menus with their slightly lurid photos of all the dishes. It seemed more in keeping with the all you can eat buffets near Leicester Square tube, but a craving for soft juicy dumplings overtook us and we got choosing. Ba Shan offers both full sized dishes and more dim sum-esque small eats on the menu at all times and it was the small eats that tempted us since you can try more that way.

First choice were the irrestistable sounding Shaanxi flatbread sandwiches or jia mo stuffed with stewed pork. I’ve never seen bread in a Chinese restaurant before and I was eager to see what the texture and taste would be like. Our dumpling craving was sated by the choice of both potstickers and boiled dumplings stuffed with minced pork. An attempt to eat some of our five a day was filled by the exquisite sounding potato slivers with chili and Sichuan pepper and dry fried green beans. The hint of spice and the cleansing jasmine tea we ordered with it were just the ticket for the heat of the day outside.

Our jia mo flatbread sandwiches arrived quickly and comprised soft, chewy slightly sweet bread like a thicker version of pitta bread well filled with tender stewed pork and crisp crunchy lettuce. They were terrific, the sweetness of the meat and bread working perfectly together in flavour and texture. The compact size stopped them from being too heavy and I could have eaten twice as many of them as we’d ordered. I want someone to open a jia mo stall somewhere so I can gorge on these regularly!

Next up were the potstickers. Crisp and fried on the top with the crust just waiting to be shattered to expose the soft succulent dumpling beneath stuffed with minced pork and herbs, they provided excellent mouth feel with the contrast of crunch and juiciness. We had the plate emptied in a trice and were very happy to see the dumpling love continue with our boiled pork numbers arrive soon after.

These were accompanied with the potato slivers and the dry fried green beans, making an excellent main course of sorts. The unbelievably fresh slivers of blanched potato with the aromatic kick of dried chili and heavily scented Sichuan peppercorns enlivened the slightly stodgy meaty dumplings perfectly while the dry fried beans had real umami flavour thanks to the finely minced salted pork cooked through them. We felt smug that we had ordered so well. But if you don’t eat pork, Ba Shan wouldn’t be so easy to navigate!

Greed got the better of me when I used my improved chopstick skills to snaffle up the last few slivers of potato and bit into a Sichuan peppercorn. This was my first experience of these little firecrackers and to say they took me by surprise would be an understatement. My tongue spent the next five minutes going numb and yet fizzing like I’d mainlined popping candy by the handful in a strangely enjoyable fashion.

I think that stray peppercorn and Ba Shan have given me the Sichuan bug. I can’t wait to come back and try some of the main dishes  such as the spiced tripe and the stewed ducks’ tongues for more savoury spicy fun very soon. Our dishes were the perfect amount for a late lunch and while I have no idea how much them came to thanks to my most generous friend who insisted it be her treat, everything seemed reasonably priced on the menu. Calm and unhurried service, along with mouthwatering food, make Ba Shan feel like a real treat in Chinatown.