Saturday, 9 May 2009
Chilli Cool, Bloomsbury
I have been a fan of Szechuan cuisine since my visit to Bar Shu all the way back in March 2007, and yet for some reason hadn't had the opportunity to follow up the experience until a couple of weeks ago. The novelty of the new was enough to make me overlook some of the more lackluster parts of the meal in Soho, but what was good was very good indeed, and the memory of the first hit of those Szechuan peppers will stay with me forever. Chilli Cool (stupid name I know - apparently it sounds a lot nicer in Mandarin) sits just a few doors down from the Black Books bookshop in Bloomsbury, and by all accounts is cheaper, better and more authentic - largely, I'm guessing, because it's not in Soho.
The menu is excitingly offal-heavy. Along with Szechuan classics like "man and wife offal slices" and "devil-exploded kidneys" were a range of dishes involving every part of pig and cow, charmingly literally translated with no concessions to delicate English ears. "Beef slices and ox tripe in chilli oil" was packed full of flavour and with cleverly and tenderly cooked tripe giving a gelatinous contrast to the rougher beef slices. And by far my favourite plate of food was a superb "hot and crispy pigs intestines", which instead of gloopy chitterlings was in fact varying in texture between moist parcels of pork fat encased in crispy membrane, to crunchy nuggets of pork scratching, all doused in a fiery pepper and chilli sauce. You didn't know exactly what kind of meat you'd got until it was in your mouth and it was either crunchily dissolving or melting with fat - great fun.
Along with some raw shredded potato, which were nice enough, arrived a huge hot pot of grouper fish and chilli, the fish being cooked perfectly and the broth spicy and rich. It's not for the faint-hearted, this food - the spicing is aggressive, the flavours occasionally overwhelming and the cuts of meat uncompromisingly bold and unusual. But it is a style of cuisine that we deserve to see a lot more of, because when it's done well, as at Chilli Cool, the results are spectacular. The only thing I can't recommend about Chilli Cool, which won't surprise anyone who's ever eaten at a Chinese restaurant in London, is the service. After repeatedly asking for the bill I resorted to standing over the guys at the till until they typed our menu out and gave me the receipt. It was wrong.
Eventually we did manage to sort out the bill, which came to just less than £20 each with plenty of alcohol - pretty much a bargain. Sloppy service has become just as much of the experience in Chinese restaurants as the old-woman's pock-marked bean curd, so it was hardly commented upon that evening by anyone in our party. Certainly judging by the lack of empty tables and the buzzy atmosphere of a restaurant that is confidently and consistently churning out some of the best Szechuan food in London, nobody else cares either.