Bar Shu

“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
Damage: Pricey
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 for tapas.  

Bar Shu on Urbanspoon


  1. I’ve eaten at Bar Shu only once (in Feb 2008), but it was such a terrible experience that I’ve never been back. Half our food was served cold or lukewarm, and the seabass in boiling chili oil lacked seabass despite costing upwards of 30 quid. And the final insult to injury was that the servers were impossible to flag down and insisted on a time limit for our table, even on an empty Sunday night.

    In any case, I keep hearing people rave about the place (and it sounds like you enjoyed it as well), so I’m increasingly thinking that I went on an “off” night. For my Szechuan fix, I usually suggest Angeles when I visit friends in Kilburn. It’s a lot cheaper and tastier than Bar Shu (though of course it doesn’t have Bar Shu’s decor and Kilburn is a haul to get to).

  2. AH! Bar Shu has reopened. I found it overpriced when I went a couple of years ago but will try it again.

    For my money, the best Sichuan I have tried is Chilli Cool in Bloomsbury, Snazz Sichuan in Euston and Angeles in Kilburn. Authentic, delicious, and really well priced.

    I will try Bar Shu again though. As for Cha Cha moon, it’s poor 🙁 I went when it first opened and it seemed promising if they got their act together, but they didn’t.

  3. Cha Cha Moon is the most piss-poor excuse of a Chinese restaurant that I’ve ever had the displeasure of eating in.

    I’ve heard so many mixed reviews about Bar Shu, but as I’ve been to Chilli Cool just up the road for a fraction of the price, and it was great, I won’t be trying it out. Their sister restaurant, Ba Shan, didn’t impress me at all.

    Incidentally, the waitress at Chilli Cool tried to talk me out of the fried intestine dish. I’m glad it didn’t work, as it was one of the best.

  4. I find it really strange that waiting staff are encouraging people not to order certain dishes but I’m hearing more and more of it lately. Glad you got your own way in the end 🙂

  5. I’ve had that chilli dish with a bit of chicken before, but at Snazz Sichuan where it was incredibly spicy. I’ve only been to Bar Shu once, before the fire. It was quite pricey, I remember, and there were loads of seafood dishes that I wouldn’t have paid for. I wouldn’t mind returning to try some of the other xiao chi (small eats) dishes though, I had a couple that were quite good.

  6. first let me just say your blog makes a very enjoyable read=]
    truth be told when i was at Bar Shu I found the spiciness of the food to have already been toned down slightly compared to sichuanese food in China or even Snazz Sichuan around Euston; there’s another restaurant in Acton simply called ‘Sichuan’ which tastes quite authentic though!

  7. American in London – Sounds like you had an awful time, maybe such a bad meal is just not forgivable. Thanks for the tip re Angeles – now I just need to find friends in Kilburn.

    Niamh – another Angeles fan and thanks for the other tips as well. We are agreed on Cha Cha Moon!

    Lizzie – well you are even more certain on Cha Cha Moon – love it! Thanks for the Chilli Cool recommendation – am getting quite a good list together here…

    Ginger – a friend just emailed actually and said when he was in that area of China they wouldn’t let him order any of the dishes and he had to get his hostel to write a note saying how he really wanted to try them! So perhaps the bossy service is quite authentic…

    Helen – yes I had a look at your review and it seemed fairly complimentary especially re the xiao chi

    NC – thanks for your comment it is such a shame when restaurants Westernise food although judging by the heat of that last dish I don’t know if that many people could cope with the real deal (I am including myself in that category). Would love to go to China and try it there…

  8. Not been to Bar Shu since before the fire. I remember it being good but pricey. I prefer Chilli Cool where the cooking is more ‘home-style’ and they’ve also just started serving Sichuan hotpot with tabletop cookers. Cha Cha Moon is rubbish and if you want proper noodles, go to Hung’s on Wardour St.

  9. I have just got home from a VERY VERY disappointing visit to Bar Shu. It was a special evening – I had high hopes after previous visits (granted 2years ago) and was astounded at how bad the service was, how rushed we were _ we would have been in and out in 45 mins if we hadnt lingered. How on earth do they justify charging so much when they have NO respect for the customer. I feel a real mug.. I will be going back to the of Sichuan favourite Angels from now on..

  10. Mr Noodles – another Chilli Cool fan – looks like I should add that to the list as well

    Anon – sounds like you had an awful experience. It really does sound in contrast to ours – they did insist on a table limit when I booked but once we got there they were not concerned about the time at all and we basically stayed until the restaurant closed.

  11. I have read mixed reviews about Ba Shu. Can someone please tell me about what sort of prices their dishes are?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *