Monday, 26 March 2007
Bar Shu, Soho
I'd been meaning to visit this place for a little while. Rumours had it that it was one of very few 'authentic' Szechuan restaurants in the UK with - shock horror! - the same menu for westerners and Chinese alike. Quite why it has taken until 2007 for Chinese restaurateurs to realise that most Londoners are quite capable of eating Szechuan cuisine without projectile vomiting over fellow diners Little Britain-style is a mystery to me. This in a city that allows the existence of Angus Steakhouses and that strange salty custard you get with your nachos in the cinema; we've had worse, believe me.
So I was looking forward to going because I knew it was going to be different. Just how different didn't become obvious until we were presented with the menus, boasting such delicacies as "Man and wife offal slices" (mmm!), "Pock-marked Old Woman's beancurd" (easy on the pockmark please waiter!) and "Exotic frog jelly stewed with papaya" (don't fob me off with standard frog!). Yes I know it's easy to take the mick out of translated menus, but these really were special and genuinely a million miles away from your standard local Chinese. Perhaps slightly worrying, however, was the inclusion of Shark's Fin Soup - I'm not sure of the sourcing of Bar Shu's shark's fin but I have a sneaking suspicion it's morally, if not legally, questionable, even if at £68 a pop we were in no danger of trying it.
As appetisers we ordered "Numbing-and-hot dried beef" and "Preserved duck eggs with green peppers". The eggs tasted just like standard pickled eggs, which was a slight disappointment because I had read they were supposed to taste very odd, like blue cheese. Thinking about it though, if they had tasted like blue cheese it may have been a taste sensation too far so perhaps it's for the best. The beef was very tasty, sweet and crispy with a good healthy dose of the Szechuan peppers, which up to this point I'd never tried and - wow - I was stunned. After a couple of spoonfuls my mouth felt as if it had been sprayed with anaesthetic, and was tingling like I'd been chowing down on an electric fence. Quite an extraordinary sensation, I can't believe this stuff isn't more popular.
Main courses were (sorry I forget the exact description) some sort of duck on the bone with a gelatinous vegetable, which tasted quite like a Thai curry, and "Shell-on prawns with pickled red chillies". The prawns were lovely and fresh, served with enough chilli to blow up Parliament, and with another healthy dose of the Szechuan peppers. By this point our mandibles were so numbed with the pepper we were having trouble talking - I was worried if it didn't wear off that we'd have to hail a cab home sounding like the Elephant Man, which I'm guessing isn't easy.
Anyway with sides of Chinese broccoli and a bit of rice, we were done, and when the feeling returned to our faces we ordered the bill. Now, it wasn't that cheap (£40-odd each), but for the experience of trying something so excitingly different it was really worth it. I suppose for a truly spartan Szechuan experience you could buy a bag of peppers and do handfuls of them at home, but I don't recommend this unless you're in a safe environment and with friends.
On our way home we popped into the Match Bar for a couple of expertly made cocktails. I just want to say a couple of words on the Match Bar as it's London's original 'affordable' cocktail venue and over the ten or so years I've been coming down the Big Smoke they've never been anything other than consistently superb. Do yourself a favour and order that big red Match Spring Punch, it's incredibly good.
Bar Shu 7/10
Match Bar 8/10