Thursday, 14 April 2011
Le Wei Xiang, Lewisham
There was a time when I would think less of Chinese restaurants that offered separate, safe, "Western" menus alongside more authentic "Chinese" versions. It seemed like a bit of a cop-out to try and be all things to all people, and as far as I could see if the day-trippers and tourists of London couldn't stomach a bit of chilli and pig intestine, they didn't deserve to eat out at all. Of course, what I had forgotten in my naively idealistic way, was that these restaurants aren't charities or amateur supper clubs, they're businesses, and a "dual menu" system is in fact a neat means of making a decent living out of timid gweilos who won't touch anything more adventurous than special fried rice, while still allowing the chefs to stretch their culinary muscles for anyone brave or, er, Chinese enough to appreciate it.
Of course, if anywhere is going to have a two-menu system, then it goes without saying that the menu that gets used should be entirely the choice of the customer, and not the restaurant. Many Londoners have distressing stories of arguments with belligerent staff in Chinatown who refuse to produce the "Chinese" menu for anyone who doesn't look "Chinese" enough, and react with ill-concealed amusement or horror when you attempt to order anything vaguely interesting. This isn't just a case of arrogant foodies throwing their weight around (though I imagine there is often an element of that), and I appreciate that staff have a duty to inform customers, in as friendly a way as possible, if what they've ordered is very spicy or contains partially-developed duck foetus, but eating out should be all about conviviality and being at ease with your surroundings, and not feeling like there's some extra special club you're not allowed to be a member of.
In short, then, every Chinese restaurant should do what Le Wei Xiang does - have all the boring chicken & sweetcorn soups and sweet & sour pork balls at the start of the menu, and then three pages in under the bold heading "GENUINE CHINESE TASTES", all the good stuff. I'm not going to make the mistake of pretending I know exactly what cuisine is served here, it looks vaguely Sichuan to me but I've been very wrong about these things in the past, so I will just say that with dishes like "Shredded pig's ear in chilli oil", not to mention "Blood curd, pig bowel, ox tripe, ham and veg with dried chilli and chinese spices", it's definitely authentic to somewhere.
In the main, the food was very good indeed. Of the smaller cold dishes, the deceptively simple "Cucumber in chilli oil" was sweet and spicy, with texture provided by a sprinkling of sesame seeds over the bouncy vegetable; "Bean curd and preserved duck egg" was swimming in a sauce rather too salty and heavy on the soy for me, although the egg itself was packed with savoury flavour; but my favourite was "Shredded potato mixed with garlic", laced with a dose of Sichuan pepper so substantial it was like swilling your mouth out with garlicky anaesthetic.
I couldn't understand why a restaurant capable of producing such a heavenly seabass hot pot, moist chunks of bright white flesh in a deeply flavoured mixed vegetable and chilli broth, also somehow produced the most disappointing dish of the evening - "Pig blood curd and bean curd soup". A few measly pieces of completely tasteless red jelly floated in a wallpaper paste of bland, cornflour-thickened water with some lumps of tofu and, unlike the seabass which was eagerly devoured in a matter of minutes (even more impressive considering its generous size), it remained nearly completely untouched throughout the meal.
"Fried aubergine with minced pork in soy sauce" was nice enough but the topping tasted slightly artificial somehow, like something out of a packet although based on the generally high level of attention elsewhere I'm fairly sure it wasn't. Better was a plate of crispy pork and veg with dried chilli, which although not comparing well with a similar thing from Ba Shan, was nevertheless very tasty. And a special mention too should go to Le Wei Xiang's lamb skewers, which were piping hot, perfectly charcoal-grilled and with a complex spicy marinade that even improved on the already impressive offering from Silk Road in Camberwell.
It was a meal, then, of enough highs to make you glad you'd made the journey (the lamb skewers, the seabass hot pot, the shredded potato), and not enough lows to make you regret the very reasonable (£20-a-head ish with a couple of beers each and a LOT of food) bill. It's not the best Sichuan in London (if indeed it even is Sichuan) and the location on a rather gritty high street in Lewisham is probably not going to tempt many people outside of the immediate area. But if you are lucky enough to be a local, just consider how many deprived parts of the city can't boast a friendly, cheap place in which to while away an evening guzzling Tsingtao and snaffling lamb skewers. People of Lewisham, consider yourself envied.
Thanks go to Mimi and Charmaine for tips & tipoff.