I first visited Ba Shan many months ago and my studied and thoughtful synopsis was something along the lines of "wottever". Perhaps it was just that my loyal heart was already dedicated to its older sibling, Baozi Inn, or maybe my expectations were set impossibly high by a load of good sentiment on the foodie grapevine (although opinions are now passionately divided). But it's all by the by now, because I've given Ba Shan another burl.
It all came about because Tim doesn't like Baozi (wottever). So, amidst a frenzied craving for Chinese food, we offered up Ba Shan as an alternative.
In contrast to the clattering throng at most of the Chinese restaurants across the road in China Town, Ba Shan was almost eerily quiet when Tim, the lovely Sarah, TPG and I settled into position on Saturday night. The restaurant is divided into a series of separate crannies, each with their own theme and character, although I prefer the corner room with the windows overlooking the noble (cough) street scenes of Soho.
Ba Shan specialises in Sichuan street food and "xiao chi" (small eats). The food from this Chinese province is known for its spiciness and the liberal use of chili, garlic and peanuts. The menu offers a large array of salads, small meat dishes, dumplings, noodles, buns and vegetarian friendly plates.
We ordered up aplenty, all the while pretending to show consideration for Tim who is dancing with the devil (the Atkins diet) during his 6 week wedding countdown. But we can't all suffer...
We started with the five spiced beef salad with coriander and garlic, which I loved - colourful, fresh and tasty, if a little lacking in spice. We gave short shrift to the whole tawdry Atkins notion by stocking up on some chashou (Sichuan wontons) with spiced soy sauce, chilli oil and garlic, which were full of meat and flavour. Next came the unusual gutoie, a pan fried series of long wontons, golden and crisp on the bottom, filled with juicy pork and chive filling.
The twice cooked pork then presented itself (one of my favourites), followed by the spicy Sichuanese noodles (which were spicy by name, but not quite enough by nature) and a fairly run-of-the-mill beef stir fry.
I had urged that we try a couple of servings of the lotus leaf buns (soft, steamed dough filled with pork). The fact that they were unexpectedly bright, Kermit green, did not put us off. However, the overwhelming dill flavour reminded me more of a McDonald's burger than was likely intended in the recall of ancient traditions by our Sichuanese chef.
The best dish of the night was the spicy kung pao chicken. Despite our best efforts to spice it up, this was the only truly fiery dish of the evening. The chicken was delicious, as were the plentiful large peanuts and hot chillis immersed within.
Overall, the food was tasty, enjoyable and worthy of return. However, more spice is required in most of the dishes promising chilli if it is to live up to its full Sichuanese promise. While Baozi Inn remains my sentimental favourite, I certainly prefer Ba Shan to its other sibling, Ba Shu across the road, although I can almost see TPG shaking his head - so, perhaps I should give that one another go too. And we found it to be reasonable value, coming in at around £15 per head (with endless tea, but no alcohol).
Of course, the lack of desserts could have been a major drawback. Unless, of course, you happen to be nearby to one of the best Italian gelati shops in town. Just as Tim's ketosis was starting to take hold, we settled in up the road for a scoop or two. And as free late night tastings of chocolate cake and Nutella crepes were offered our way, the last words I heard muttered were a resounding salute to what the Atkins diet could do with itself.
Ba Shan, 24 Romilly Street, Soho, London, W1D