Friday, 6 November 2009
Gourmet San, Bethnal Green
If you are a vegetarian in London you really don't often have cause to complain about dining options. Of course that's the kind of presumptuous, blanket statement that's very easy to make as a carnivore, but really - even aside from the 100% vegetarian places (of which there are a healthy smattering), the vast majority of other restaurants could be considered vegetarian-friendly, where non meat-eaters could happily consume a good proportion of the menu and the dishes containing animal protein are clearly marked. There are, of course, plenty of restaurants that could be accused of being vegetarian-unfriendly, where the veggie options are meagre and uninteresting, and where animal fats lurk in the most unlikely corners (I'm thinking here particularly of St. John and its gastropubby disciples). And then, right at extreme end of the scale, where vegetarians are not so much discouraged as shown a metaphorical middle finger in the form of a menu that contains animal product in almost every single dish, there is Gourmet San.
I'm not complaining of course - I had a quite wonderful meal here and can't wait to go back - but this is a restaurant that lists a dish as 'Dry-fried French beans with olive oil' and serves it scattered in pork fat. Their attitude seems to be that there are very few plates of food that can't be improved by the addition of pig, and it's a philosophy I also happen to hold very close to my heart. The beans, by the way, were extraordinarily good, the little black slivers of olive both seasoning and spicing up the crunchy beans, and the pork fat adding a mouthwatering silky richness.
Rather than attempting to construct any kind of balanced meal (I think the staff would have laughed in my face if I'd have asked for a salad), we surrendered to the temptations of the Pork Page (37 pork dishes on one page of the menu) and ordered first a plate of fried pork intestines. Liberally scattered with Szechuan peppers and dried red chilli, this was a challenging plate of food even before you got your head round the fact you were eating pig's colon. But once you become accustomed to the initial startling heat and numbness of the peppercorns, this was great fun - the sliced loops of intestine had been breaded and fried like calamari, and had a lovely texture and piggy flavour.
Next to arrive was my favourite dish of the evening - ox tongue and tripe in chilli sauce. The textures were fantastic - especially from the tripe, which was just firm enough and with that unique honeycomb structure - but the flavours were even more impressive, deep and meaty and perfectly balanced with just enough chilli. I really can't fault this dish at all - even the fact it was served cold seemed to enhance rather than subdue the overall effect. Beautiful.
A portion of pigs trotters in brown sauce initially seemed incredibly generous until you realised that most of it was gristle and cartilage. But what meat there was fell off the bone easily, and the flavours of the rich brown sauce shone. Not my favourite dish, but certainly unusual, and there's something satisfyingly primal about tearing pig skin off huge, chunky bones with your teeth.
A massive bowl of chilli beef had another startling dose of Szechuan peppers and the rich, red broth fizzed and burned in the mouth. All sorts of cuts of cow had been used in this dish, and diving into it was like pulling out prizes from a tombola. It was very soon drained dry.
BBQ lamb skewers were another candidate for best dish. Perfectly tender, superbly spiced and with just enough juicy fat to add flavour without being overwhelming, the fact they were being favourably compared with those sold at Tayyabs should tell you how good these tasted.
Oh, and @hollowlegs ordered plate of aubergine too. I'm sure she enjoyed it.
What's important to remember about Gourmet San is that although some plates of food disappeared faster than others, there was simply nothing that was less than very good - an extraordinary achievement considering the size of the menu and range of dishes on offer. And although the final bill wasn't exactly what you could call super-budget, at little more than £20 a head for extremely generous portions and service that was way more friendly and efficient than it had any right to be, I'll call it a bargain. Szechuan cuisine, at its best, always has the potential for sheer visceral, seat-of-your-pants, sweating, screaming, burning, hilarious, joyous dining. And Gourmet San does Szechuan cuisine better than most.