Stitch and Bear

A long-running Irish blog with reviews of the best restaurants in Dublin and throughout Ireland. Some wine and cocktails thrown in for good measure!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ba Shan Restaurant London

I'm stone mad crazy for Chinese food. It started many years ago with Sweet and Sour (as it does for many Irish people), but I gradually branched out into the more exotic varieties (black bean, hot garlic etc). 

It wasn't really until the mid-2000s that I finally got to flavour 'real' Chinese food, thanks to the explosion in the Asian population of Ireland. My first experience was in a horribly grotty upstairs restaurant in the now closed buildings on Moore Street. The place may not have been a fit abode for a rat, but the food was a revelation with layers of garlic and chili flavour.

From that point onwards, I was hooked. In fact, the obsession hasn't abated any, it's just got stronger. My favourite styles of cooking are Sichuan (pungent and flavoursome with lots of chili and garlic) and Hunan (hot and spicy with deep flavours & fresh aromas).  A while back, while googling on Hunan cuisine, I had read a restaurant review from Jay Rayner, critic with the Guardian, which featured the Ba Shan Hunan restaurant in SoHo, London. "Hmmm", I thought, "I must remember that place". So I entered it into a little note on my iPhone and tucked it away for later retrieval. 

Well, time passed, and I found myself in London, alone on a Friday. It was lunchtime and, as is not uncommon, my thoughts turned to spicy food. I recalled a very nice Korean restaurant I had enjoyed near the Palladium theatre, but then the better part of my brain took over and turned my feet towards SoHo. So, it was that I found myself seated in the Ba Shan restaurant drooling over their large, picture-based menu, trying to decide if ordering three plates would be too much.

I chose crispy fried beef with white onion for a starter. I received a plate of thinly sliced raw onion mixed with spaghetti-thin pieces of crispy beef, all deliciously dressed in a chili-oil which contained a liberal dash of prickly ash oil (derived from Sichuan pepper, which has a peculiar tingly, buzzing & numbing flavour). The combination of mouth-tingling Sichuan pepper with the bite of raw onion was amazing and a true challenge to the tastebuds. This was not a starter for the faint of heart. I ploughed my way through it, relishing every mouthful (although every swallow of my accompanying beer hurt, due to the effect of the Sichuan pepper).

For my main course, I had gone for an oil-based dish, as oil is often used in Chinese cooking to capture the rich flavours of garlic, beans & chili. My main course of twice-cooked pork belly did not disappoint.  It came served prettily in a steel wok, which sat atop a small burner at my table. This meant that as I ate, the flavour was intensifying and improving as the oil slowly bubbled. The pork was succulent and juicy and the juices were rich and deeply coloured with the flavours of dried chili, fresh chili, whole cloves of garlic and fermented beans. This wasn't as hot as the starter, but the rich, deep flavours and milder heat would make it a good introductory dish for those starting out to experience Hunan cuisine.

There is something about food this spicy and flavoursome that seems so healthy. It lifts you, it cleanses you and it challenges you. It becomes an addiction. 

Ba Shan Hunan Restaurant, 24 Romilly Street, London W1D 5AH. Tel +44 (0)20 7287 3266

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