Tuesday, 4 May 2010
The emperor may be wearing no clothes, but the Empress of Sichuan knows how to dress up a plate.
Based on the fringes of Chinatown, near the Prince Charles cinema, the Empress Of Sichuan looks a little prissy on the inside compared to some of her neighbours. Normally elegance is not an advantage in my book of tracking down no frills, gutsy but good Chinese fare. There are wine bottles on formal display and enough room between tables to make it near impossible to surreptitiously eye off the meals on neighbouring plates - almost. There are even linen napkins.
However, service immediately puts the heart at ease - it is friendly, non stiff and helpful (despite the occasional language barrier). Waitresses have a little more time to talk through your options than they do on Gerrard St, where they're often shrieking out "fried pork, crispy duck!" before they've even completed the 180 degree turn from your table.
Wines by the glass are as cheap as chips. I enjoyed a couple of glasses of the Hazy Bay Chenin Blanc (Sth Africa 2008) while TPG chose a zingy Gerwurtztraminer Verdelho from Opal Ridge. Both were around £4 - £4.50 per glass and got our night off to a happy start.
Our bowl of sliced, spicy chicken (pictured above) - so full and juicy - came first, wallowing in a bowl of flame coloured chili oil, with a hefty smattering of sesame seeds and coriander. At £6, this was good value and 100% more enjoyable than the version I've had at Soho's trendy Bar Shu in the past. It was swimming in oil, but somehow this seemed nourishing rather than greasy.
Our whole steamed seabass was gorgeous. Hunks of delicate, moist fish balanced beautifully with the subtle flavours of the ginger and spring onion. It would be hard not to choose this again next time. At around £20, it could easily feed 3 people. Or us.
Our bears paw tofu was delicious, although being thinly sliced and quite dry, I'm not sure I prefer it over chunkier cut styles which retain a softer texture. Braised with scrumptious slithers of pork and big, slippery cloud ear mushrooms, this was another fiery delight with contrasting textures.
The Empress of Sichuan is all substance over style, especially when compared to some of the trendier looking Sichuanese players which have answered the call for this fiery cuisine nearby. She's playful, but chef Kang Dong (who hails from Chengdu) keeps her on track, focused on what we're really there for: delicious, comforting, flavourful food in an ambience that doesn't steal anything away from the plate.
She's not the cheapest option in Chinatown but, in just one bite, you'll understand why.
Our bill came to around £60 for 2, with wine, steamed rice and service. And I'll be back. Oh-ho yeees [rubs hands gleefully]...
Empress of Sichuan, 6-7 Lisle Street, London WC2 (020-7734 8128)
If you're interested in Sichuanese food in Soho, you might be interested in my earlier review of Bar Shan. Bar Shan has funkier decor that EOS, but I think the food at EOS has the edge.