Most people’s understanding of Chinese food is Cantonese food, which is 99% of China Town, the crispy duck, the sweetcorn soup and the small platters of dim sum. But Cantonese food is only one of 8 famous cuisines of China, which we eat very sparely in Beijing. Depending on the climate and local produce, each cuisine is famous for particular cooking methods and specific flavours. Last few years have seen a rise of chuan cuisine (commonly known as sichuan cuisine from south of China, 川菜) and hunan cuisine (from south east of China, 湘菜) in London, which is particularly memorable as you’ll overdose on spice to the extent your whole tongue goes numb. This is because of the humid climates where chilli was believed to burn off the excessive moisture. In both regions, the dishes are often too spicy even for Chinese people from other regions. Therefore, London’s take have all been toned down. If you want to sample both cuisines, it just couldn’t be easier as both restaurants are under the same owner and 10 steps away from each other in Soho, named Bar Shu (sichuan) and Ba Shan (hunan).
Ba Shan has been open for a couple years, dominated by Chinese students from lunch till late evenings. 9 out of 10 visits, I’ve not seen any western people here. The restaurant has received mixed reviews from both bloggers and professional critics, and since then it’s adapted the menu a number of times. Hunan residents would probably give it a thumb down for diverting away from traditional flavours but for Chinese people living in London, any resemblance to home flavour has always been welcomed.
The restaurant is uniquely decorated to traditional Chinese layouts with Mao’s portraits hanging proudly. Oriental styled wooden chairs and Chinese lanterns with old style drawings.
Those who always get lost in the lengthy Chinese menus can find relieve in the fully illustrated menu with pictures of every dish.
Cold mixed mu er
It’s tradition to eat cold platters before mains, like the starters of European cuisine. The purposes is the same, to awaken the palates for the delicious food to come. This plate of mu er (like a type of mushroom) served exactly this purpose, lightly spicy, seasoned with refreshing vinegar and tossed with tons of garlic.
Spicy stir fried cabbage
Hunan cuisine is known for excessive amounts of oil, which explains the oil still glistening on each leaf of the cabbage. Though each leaf was crunchy and fresh, a good mediator between the other spicy dishes.
Ke’s homemade tofu
The tofu was deep-fried and lacked flavour. Previous visit’s crab and egg yolk tofu with rice was heavenly and definitely a better choice.
Bamboo chicken is a signature of Ba Shan with tiny amounts of chicken but 3x amounts of deep fried chilli. The spice has been fully obsorbed in the oil so eating the chilli won’t give a shock, but the chicken will. After about 3 tablespoons, you’ll start to reach/ask for ice water which is the worst decision one can make. Cold drinks double the spiciness so try to eat some rice if the levels become unbearable. Thai restaurants sometimes give fresh cucumbers which also work really well.
Seabass in chopped salted chilli
THE signature dish of Ba Shan and of Hunan cuisine. The seabass was cooked very tender with the flavours of chopped chilli infused thoroughly giving that unique flavour. Order some noodles to dip into the spicy juices.
Verdict - 4/5
Food (good) - Hunan food in London is like a luxury so best not to criticise too much and just enjoy the opportunity. Most dishes on the menu are good, best to try a few to find your favourites. The signatures are Bamboo chicken and seabass in chopped salted chilli.
Service (Chinese type) - as soon as I say Chinese style, you’ll all know exactly what I mean. The deco is very nice, traditional enough to give that ‘I’m in China feeling’. Chinese people love this restaurant so best to book to avoid been turned away, but on the day booking should be early enough.
Cost (£36pp) - not cheap in Chinese standards but you’ll unlikely to order expensive wines so that’ll save some money.
24 Romilly Street, Soho, London
W1D 5AH, 0207 287 3266