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Posts Tagged ‘Szechuan in London’

Chilled tofu with spring onion (£4.50)

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:

twice fried green beans with minced pork and preserved veg (£8.50)

Beef slices in extremely spicy soup (£12.50)

ma po tofu (£7.50)

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.

steamed “dong po” pig’s joint (£13.80)

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:

kung pao chicken

"bear's paw tofu"

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.

Grilled lamb skewers Sichuan style at £1.50 per skewer were a little too salty and over-marinated, so I’ll stick with the cumin-dusted, smoky ones served at My Old Place and Gourmet San.

“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.

Empress of Sichuan, 6 Lisle Street, WC2 H7, 0207 734 8128; closest tube station: Leicester Square

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Chili Fried Crab

Chili Fried Crab

To celebrate the Year of the Ox, my friends Phu and Aaron sent me this glowing Observer review and suggested we try out Gourmet San.

I’ve now been to Gourmet San twice, and while about half the dishes I tried were eh, the other half were very good, and all were very cheap – most mains were £7 and showy ones like the chili fried crab topped out at £11. It’s a bit of a schlepp to reach Gourmet San (it’s so far east on Bethnal Green Road that it’s no longer Trendy Dodgy – like Green & Red – and is more Truly Dodgy), but it’s a fun place to go with friends, and everyone will surely leave with full stomachs and full wallets.

Both times I visited Gourmet San, the chili fried crab (pictured above) and the grilled lamb skewers (£1 per skewer) were outstanding. The former, while somewhat tricky and messy to eat, were lightly battered and fried and then covered in numbing Szechuan peppers, garlic and scallions. The lamb skewers were smoky, juicy and spicy from a chili-and-cumin rub.

grilled lamb skewers at Gourmet San

grilled lamb (Xinjiang) skewers at Gourmet San

Speaking of the grilled lamb skewers, Gourmet San has a rep for being Szechuan, but when you see the lengthy menu, it’s obvious that the resto serves dishes from all over China. The skewers, for example, are a classic example of Xinjiang cuisine, in northwest Chna. But so what if they’re not Szechuan? They’re delish. Don’t even bother with the other skewers (e.g., prawn). They pale in comparison to the lamb.

“Sizzling beef,” recommended by our server, was very good. Soft, tender beef (probably tenderized with a dip in corn starch before some light frying) served with sweet red peppers and onions.

gourmet-san-fish-and-chili

fried fish stir fried with chillies and green peppers

And both the fish and chicken stir fried with chillies were tasty, though the chicken (like the fried crab) was a bit annoying to eat. There were lots of bones to spit out, so if you decide to order it, make sure you’re eating with good friends. Gourmet San is not the place to go if you want to appear a demure and tidy eater.

spicy tofu and seafood

spicy tofu and seafood

Ironically, the classic Szechuan dishes I tried were disappointing. For example, thinking I’d mix it up a bit, I passed up the mapo tofu in favor of a spicy seafood tofu, but basically it was a giant portion of tofu in a slightly-spicy-but-flavorless sauce.

rice vermicelli and minced pork

rice vermicelli and minced pork

The “ants climbing up a tree” (aka rice vermicelli with minced pork) was sadly pedestrian. The dish could’ve used more spice and minced pork. Instead, it was just a large portion of noodles and soy sauce.

spicy dry-fried string beans

spicy dry-fried string beans

And I love dry-fried string beans so much that I tried this dish twice at Gourmet San, despite being disappointed the first time around. Both times, the string beans were limp and lacking in bite. They were just oily overcooked beans. Sad.

The food seems to be hit-or-miss at Gourmet San, but the prices are low enough, and the good dishes are good enough that I’ll keep visiting until I’m able to order only the tasty dishes.

Despite over-ordering both times I visited, my tab was never more than £15 a person, which covered multiple starters, mains and beers.

Gourmet San, 261 Bethnal Green Road, E2 6AH; 020 7729 8388; closest tube station: Liverpool Street (and then it’s a 5-minute bus ride down Bethnal Green Road on the 8 or 388).
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Angeles szechuan restaurant interior, Kilburn, London

I’ve walked by Angeles dozens of times when visiting friends in Kilburn. Angeles’s dingy-looking all-you-can-eat buffet has always depressed me. But it turns out the buffet is only half of Angeles, and the *other* half of the restaurant serves good, cheap, spicy Szechuan. Lucky that my friend Jane tipped me off about Angeles’s better half, and now I’ve been there twice in the past month and look forward to more trips there.

dry fried beans at Angeles Szechuan

The resto’s Szechuan dry fried beans are a winner – spicy with bright chilies and salty with fermented veggies. A huge bowl of crunchy goodness for £6.50. Dan dan noodles were also very good. Al dente noodles and a little gai lan for crunch and color. Simple and delicious . . . and £3.50 a bowl.

hot pot ingredients at Angeles szechuan

Angeles also offers all-you-can-eat hotpot for £20 per person (the entire table has to order the hot pot). Huge, fresh prawns, fish balls, fish fillets, pak choi, crab sticks, enoki mushrooms, pork slices, beef, lamb – all good quality and in never-ending quantities. The one time I’ve had the hot pot, the restaurant divided our pot of boiling broth into “spicy” and “regular,” and next time, I’ll get just the “regular” because it’s spicy enough for me. The “spicy” broth set my mouth on fire for hours afterward.

mapo tofu at Angeles szechuan, Kilburn

My one disappointment at Angeles so far has been the mapo tofu. I was looking forward to the dish’s spicy-salty-meaty tofu slinkiness, but instead the sauce was just salty. Very little spice. Mostly oily. It arrived at my table about two seconds after I ordered it, which makes me think that it came from the all-you-can-eat buffet next door. At £7.50, the mapo tofu is one to avoid.

Service and decor are good enough.  Angeles is all about the good-value food.

Angeles Restaurant, 405 Kilburn High Road, NW6 7QE, 0207 625 2663.  60-second walk from Kilburn tube station.

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