Tuesday 4 May 2010

Empress of Sichuan - Chinatown, London

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)
Empress of Sichuan on Urbanspoon

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.


  1. That seabass looks great, I really enjoyed Empress of Sichuan when I ate there a month or so ago as well. You are right it is a step up from the normal Chinatown restaurants.

  2. Going to have to give this a go, that sea bass sounds great, love the "after" photo!

    It's good to see how Sichuan food seems to have settled in well in London, lots of good places around for it now. I always wondered when Bar Shu opened if it was going to remain a kind of novelty or whether it would catch on properly.

  3. This is on my list of places to try. Did you happen to notice if there was any none-porky tofu on the menu?

    I love the before/after pics of the seabass too.

  4. Anonymous05 May, 2010

    I've yet to try EOS. I am a big fan of Sichuan cuisine and am a big fan of restaurants like Chilli Cool, Snazz or Angeles. Have you tried them? Curious as to how it compares. Personally I find Bar Shu overpriced by comparison. Chilli Cool is particularly good and very reasonable.

  5. Love this post as always, and although I'm not usually a fan of food photos (odd for a food blogger I know, but I'm an odd person) I have to say I chuckled at the sea bass 'after' photo too - very witty.

    Goes straight on to the 'must try' list! Perhaps I can share a sea bass with you and TPG some time... ;-)

  6. Gourmet Chick - I really loved it. I remember reading that you did too.

    Jones - Sichuan food does seem to have taken off, and it's good to see something different to the usual Cantonese fare. Seems like specialist noodle bars are going to be the next thing....

    Natasha - In only noticed the Bears Paw and Ma Po tofu, both of which contain pork. However, I wasn't on the look out so I'm not sure if they might have a non porky variety for you! There was quite an extensive menu.

    Eatlikeagirl - I have read so much about Chilli Cool, it must be time for me to go. All the bloggers seem to love it! I think Bar Shu is overrated too. I thought the same of Bar Shan, but liked it better last time I visited. Admittedly based on only 1 visit at EOS, I think EOS is better than both of them.

    Hugh - Thanks! TPG and I would love to share the sea bass with you anytime. Sounds like a plan for a Friday night soon?

  7. Anonymous06 May, 2010

    I have always wanted to try that place. I really love seshuan cuisine and after my meal at Chilli Cool, I fell in love with it

  8. Mathilde - Ok I MUST try Chilli Cool, but EOS had the same impact on me - reigniting the flame for Sichuan food.

  9. I liked Empress of Sichuan but I only had 3 dishes. The cold tofu was a highlight. I was unimpressed with the service though - they poured my beer into my companion's glass. Outrage.

  10. Lizzie - The horror! I can't believe they did that!

  11. I tried this place a couple of days and thought it was brill... will post a blog soon!


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