A few weeks ago, I’d read on Eat Noodles Love Noodles (an excellent blog written by “Mr. Noodles”) that Keelung restaurant (which I’d enjoyed despite its drubbing by the pros) had reinvented itself as a Szechuan restaurant called the Empress of Sichuan.
On the strength of Mr. Noodles’s post, Jon and I had dinner there at the end of January, and while some dishes (dan dan noodles, for example) were eh, a few were good enough that we returned this past weekend to celebrate Chinese New Year with six friends.
Classic (and popular) Szechuan dishes that were especially well prepared at Empress:
The green beans were sweet and crunchy, and the preserved veg and minced pork added salty richness. Beef slices were tender (the magic of corn flour) and fragrant thanks to the citrusy heat of Sichuan peppercorn. Ma po tofu at first glance looked over-starched and gloppy, but in fact tasted wonderfully silky and spicy.
Spicy glass noodles with mince pork and dried shrimp (£8.80), more memorably known as “ants climbing up a tree” rounded out the best of the classics, and I especially liked how the dish was hidden away in the “vegetable dishes” section of the menu. Minced pork is definitely my kind of vegetable.
My favorite dish of the evening was the “steamed Dong Po pig’s joint.” Pork belly lovers among you will adore this dish. The thick layer of pig fat surrounding the knuckle was steamed and braised into unctuous, gooey silkiness. Slather the stuff over your rice. There’s some meat in there, but the fat is the main attraction.
In sharp contrast to the pork joint, the chilled tofu with spring onion (pictured at the top of this post) was, for me, also a highlight of the evening. Lightly seasoned with sesame oil, soy sauce and chili, the dish was a refreshing start to the dinner.
A few of the dishes at Empress, although not bad, paled in comparison to the above:
The kung pao chicken had a well-balanced sweet-spicy-salty flavor, but it needed more peanuts. And I’m against the presence of cashews in the dish.
“Bear’s paw tofu,” much praised by The Evening Standard‘s Fay Maschler and The Times’s Giles Coren, turne out to be a braised tofu served with some tender slices of pork and flavorless black mushrooms. It wasn’t bad, but it was a bit bland and relatively unexciting.
“Lantern shadow beef, thinly sliced beef in spicy sauce (£7) tasted like overly-sugary beef jerky, and the “farmer’s fish” baked fish with onion, cumin and black bean (£21.50) lacked enough flesh to feed the eight of us. It didn’t help that it arrived at our table looking like a dark, sinister sea monster, and “baked” seemed an inaccurate description. The fish tasted fried. Maybe it was baked in a vat of oil?
White rice at £2 a portion seemed expensive, but our tab without alcohol would have been only £15 a person, so I can’t complain much. With lots of wine and beer, our total became a still-reasonable £28 a person.
Bottom line: the place is a winner. As my friend P pointed out: it’s a huge compliment to the restaurant that each of us at our table of eight, when asked what our favorite dish of the evening was, chose different dishes.