As you may have noticed before, some friends and I have a bit of a soft spot for Sichuan food. We don’t seem to be able to get enough of those amazing tingly peppercorns and chilli infused oil, so we was inevitable that when we decided to get together for a joint birthday meal, it would have to be at BarShu, the Soho based Sichuan restaurant that the queen of Sichuan cookery, Fuschia Dunlop consults for…

On a wet and windy Wednesday night, with a Tsing Tao beer to hand we found ourselves pouring over the extensive menu, pondering what to order and wondering why it isn’t off putting when Chinese restaurants put pictures of the food on menus, but the height of tackiness when British establishments do it?

We didn’t get round to an answer to this though because we got so hopelessly lost in trying to narrow down our choices from the menu. Even the offal looked appealing. Luckily we all have similar tastes and a deep abiding love of pork products so there was no need for complicated compromise, just choosing the tastiest sounding items. We started with the hot and numbing beef, the pork rolls and the smacked cucumber salad to cool us down again.

For the main course we went for the epic looking Dongpo pork knuckle in all its glory with fish-fragrant aubergine and dry fried beans on the side. After some deliberation over our tofu dish, we chose the bear’s paw beancurd over the pock marked old woman’s beancurd as we were in the mood for something drier and firmer to accompany the pork knuckle. We also ordered some boiled rice and limbered up for our impending feast.

We didn’t have to wait long. Our appetisers arrived swiftly and we got stuck right in. The hot and numbing beef is a semi-dried texture, like a not completely dried biltong. Chewy, yet yielding and true to description in that it heated the tongue and numbed the rest of the mouth, it was fantastic. I could have just eaten this for the entire meal.

That was until I tasted the pork rolls… the kind of impossibly thinly sliced pork you usually get at a hotpot restaurant wrapped round thin slivers of carrot and served in a spicy, garlicky sauce, these were stunning. The incredibly flavoursome pork works well with the fresh light filling and the deep rich umami sauce was so moreish, I was tempted to lick the plate clean. The intense garlickiness of the smacked cucumbers completed the pork while the freshness was perfect with the heat of the beef. We could not have started the meal in better style…

We just had time to refresh our beers before the mains started to arrive. First and foremost was the imposing Dongpo pork knuckle, brought to the table and ceremoniously served with a spoon and fork, the meat just falling apart with the merest touch of the cutlery. Everything else arrived afterwards, but we barely noticed as we were already putting succulent pieces of pork on our plates and tucking in.

It was outstanding. Soft and succulent from the long slow cooking in its own glorious pork fat and spiked with a hint of garlic and chilli, it melted in the mouth and it was quite easy to see why it would have inspired people to poetry. It was further enhanced by the dry fried green beans which squeaked with garlic and finely minced pork and made it hard to turn my attentions to the other dishes.

The beancurd made me very glad I had. Firm and slightly chewy, it was slick with a sauce infused with the umaminess of mushroom and a refreshing hint of ginger. I’m quite new to the joys of tofu, having had one too many bland flaccid dishes where it was badly cooked (by me) when I was a vegetarian. Only recently have I plucked up the courage to try it again and I am more then pleased to see how good it can be when handled well.

I was less keen on the fish fragrant aubergine. It came as greenish strips of aubergine rather the softer, more pureed finish I’m used to with this dish. I have to admit, I don’t really like the texture of aubergine and thus struggled a bit with these chunkier pieces. I might have found them easier if I’d liked the sauce more, but I found it a bit sweet for my tastes and I just couldn’t embrace this dish as wholeheartedly as the sea spicy aubergine at Chilli Cool, but this was my issue rather then calibre of the dish.

I’m afraid I can’t tell you how much this feast of pork and chilli came to as my unbelievably generous friend A made the whole thing even more enjoyable by picking up the bill for all us (as well as furnishing me with my own copy of Fuschia Dunlop’s classic Sichuan Cooking! No wonder we call her A for absolutely amazing!) She didn’t look at all shocked when the bill arrived, so I’m going to assume it was a bit more than Chilli Cool, but in the same ballpark as their sister restaurant BaShan.

I’d definitely recommend BarShu for top class Sichuan food in the kind of surroundings that make you feel like you’re out for a treat rather than just a bowl of dan dan noodles and a few sides like Chilli Cool and Baozi Inn can do. This was proper grown up food and I look forward to seeing if The Empress of Sichuan can touch it…

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