“No” our waitress says, shaking her head forcefully “I don’t think you want to order that”. There are six of us at Bar Shu for a catch up dinner and we are desperately trying to order the Fragrant Chicken in a Pile of Chillis. Our waitress is steadfastly against the idea, “very hot” she warns. Bar Shu is a Sichuan restaurant so we are expecting the dishes to be hot, especially when each dish comes with its own chilli rating (from zero to three chillis). The Fragrant Chicken in a Pile of Chillis is a three chilli rated dish and bears the menu description “as hot as it looks”. Our waitress decrees that we will be allowed to order it once we have eaten some of the other dishes on the menu to see if our palates can cope.
Fragrant chicken in a pile of chillis
The bright lights of Bar Shu beckon you as you walk down Frith street, it sits like a beacon on a prominent corner luring fans of Sichuan cooking inside to the modern space which is fairly minimalist with the exception of a few carved masks hung on the walls in an nod to the heritage of the food. The kitchen in Bar Shu burned down a few months ago but since the beginning of September it is now open for business again and pretty much booked out every night.
The reason for Bar Shu’s popularity is the cuisine on offer, Sichuan food which is completely different from the Cantonese food which is served at most Chinese restaurants. The X factor is the heat that is used in Sichuan cooking. Bar Shu imports Sichuan chillis and peppercorns to use as the flavour and heat is so unique. It is the sort of heat that makes your lips and tongue go numb and start to tingle. In anticipation of the spicy food we eschew the wine list and all order Sing Tao beers along with jugs of tap water in the hope that we can drown out any unpleasant burning sensation from overuse of chillis.
To begin, the thin sliced pork rolls which are almost like a spring roll served in a spicy garlic sauce. The rolls err on the side of greasy but the pork is meltingly tender. The “refreshing green soybeans” live up to their moniker, shelled edamame beans are served with chunks of diced carrot and doused in a light sesame dressing. However, the pick of the starters is the dry fried green beans which are combined with tiny balls of minced pork and ya cai a Sichuan preserved mustard green to deliver a moreish hit of flavour. Obviously a little pork makes everything taste better but these beans are so good that we have to order a second dish of them.
Mouthwatering Sichuan Chicken
Everything so far has been delicious but it hasn’t delivered the fiery hit that we were anticipating. The “fragrant beef” is a pungent stir fry of beef and peppers, the beef is succulent and the peppers add vibrancy but the fiery heat is limited. More on the spicy side is the “mouthwatering Sichuan chicken” which the menu advertises as being served with a “lip tinglingly spicy sauce”. The slick of chilli red sauce that covers the mound of chicken and bamboo shoots is hot enough to heighten your senses and make you sit up and take notice without leaving you in pain. We are here for a little bit of pain though, just a little of that almost drug induced stupor that comes about from a really serious chilli hit. Lip tingling spicy sauce conquered, we smile at our waitress and tell her we are ready for the Fragrant Chicken in a Pile of Chillis.
The dish should really be renamed chillis with an occasional piece of fragrant chicken as it is essentially a huge platter of bright red chillis, spicy seeds and all, punctuated only by the occasional piece of deep fried chicken. Joel tries it first as he is the type of person who has not truly enjoyed a meal until he is crying from the heat of the chillis at the end of it. “Good” he says, starting to sweat slightly on his forehead “very good”. I take a couple of spoonfuls and at first it just tastes slightly spicy, but then the chillis kick in and I am gasping for breath and clutching at my glass of water like an explorer emerging from the depths of the Sahara desert. My mouth is on fire and my nose is streaming. This is serious heat, to the extent that it is uncomfortable and not really my idea of fun. We all try a little but it is only really Joel who can bear more than a few mouthfuls. The waiters come past admiringly to watch him eat and tell us how one group of diners in a private room once ordered three bowls of the stuff between them and wolfed it down without even breaking out into a sweat.
The Fragrant Chicken may be the sort of dish that you order more for the experience than for a pleasurable eating experience (although Joel probably feels differently) however the rest of the food on offer at Bar Shu is both intriguing and memorable. It wakes up your taste buds and introduces you to a whole new world dark, aromatic Sichuan flavours.
Details: 28 Frith Street London, W1D 5LF (Ph 020 7287 8822) Tube: Tottenham Court Road
Bar Shu is far superior to the other Chinese restaurant I have tried in Soho, Alan Yau’s Cha Cha Moon
. If you are not in the mood for a Sichaun chilli hit, just down Frith street is the brilliant Barrafina