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Bar Shu, London

24 August 2006

There has been another flurry of activity this summer in the London Chinese restaurant scene - and it has got several critics very excited. Most recently came Dragon Castle near the Elephant and Castle and, before that, Bar Shu in Soho.

Unlike previous fanfares surrounding Chinese dining, neither of these arrivals had anything to do with multimillion-pound fitouts or Alan Yau. Rather, the interest was sparked by some rather special food - in the case of Bar Shu, Szechwan.

Szechwan cooking is one of the stand-out cuisines of China. All Chinese people know its reputation for "ma la" (numbing and hot) dishes, and it is currently considered the fashionable food to be seen eating in cosmopolitan cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. In the UK, however, its status has been tagged - much like that of Indian vindaloo - as the token hot dish on anglicised and otherwise Cantonese-angled menus.

Part of the problem was a dearth of dedicated Szechwan restaurants. Bar Shu owner Shao Wei saw the gap in the market and opened the 120-seat restaurant over the road from Chinatown proper. To help consult on the food, he enlisted cookery writer and Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop.

Misconception
Dunlop is one of the few Westerners to have cooked at the Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, the Szechwan capital, and she jumped at the chance to correct the misconception that Szechwan food is all about spices blowing your head off.

"Chefs learning to cook Szechwan food are taught a whole canon of flavours," she says. "They learn the components of fish-fragrant sauces, or hot and numbing sauces, and what balances make those flavours. Like learning your basic French sauces, it is quite systematic."

A perfect example of how flavours are built comes with gong bao chicken (£9.50, or gong bao prawn for £18). Chicken cubes are flavoured with salt, soy and bean starch to develop the meat's flavour from the start (the main flavour is not added until the end). The charmingly named facing-heaven chillies, chopped in half with the seed removed, are then sizzled in oil with Szechwan pepper. The chicken is added next, then a mix of spring onion, garlic and a sauce of Chinese vinegar and sugar - the basic sweet and sour flavour. Finally, peanuts are added, to contrast the crunch with the tender chicken.

The chilli and pepper is the classic numbing and hot combination - a multi-layered effect that starts with the heat from the chilli and follows with lip tingling from the pepper. It is intense, but not overwhelming.

Other traditional dishes include Chengdu dry-braised sea bass (£22) and plenty of offal: man-and-wife beef (named for a restaurateur couple from the 1930s), for example, contains tongue, tripe, heart and beef (£8). Fire-exploded kidney flowers (£9.50), meanwhile, are prepared by cutting pigs' kidneys criss-crossed, so they fan out when cooked at high temperatures. "You get a lovely crispy texture on the outside but the soft texture inside, too," Dunlop says.

Menus are written in English as well as Chinese, and there is no hidden list for Chinese customers. "Chinese restaurants haven't been good about communication," Dunlop says, "while Westerners don't know what to order, so there is a stalemate, and people don't get much beyond sweet and sour."

That said, the restaurant is not dumbed down for Westerners, but is created on Chinese terms. Accordingly, expect the unexpected. Assorted meats in a fiery sauce features luncheon meat (£16), while lobster comes with mixed fruits and salad cream. "They are pretty inventive with their flavours," Dunlop says. "In Hong Kong, I have seen custard powder added to dishes, and ketchup."

Challenging
More challenging is the preserved egg (£6.90), something that Dunlop suggests Western diners eat with their eyes shut. For this, raw duck eggs are covered in a paste of clay and lime - the calcium carbonate variety. Left for a matter of weeks, sometimes months, the lime penetrates the shell and cooks the egg chemically. The white turns to a brown jelly, the yolk goes greeny black. "It's actually not a difficult taste," she says.

Some things, however, remain beyond the palates of most Westerners. Dunlop says: "I think one of the last bastions is this thing they have for texture food, where there is no flavour, it's just eaten for texture." Shark fin is one (£48), the other is the frog jelly (£18) - not spawn but the fat around the ovaries of a kind of frog found in northern China.

What's on the menu
  • Slivered pig's tripe in chilli oil sauce, £6.50

  • Smacked cucumbers in hot-and-garlicky sauce, £6

  • Phoenix-tail lettuce in sesame sauce, £6.90

  • Baby cuttlefish with red pickled chillies, £12

  • Sea bass braised in chilli and broad bean paste, £22

  • Dongpo pork knuckle, £16.90

  • Sea cucumber with abalone sauce, £28 (per person)

  • Sweet potato ingots, £8.50

  • Pearly glutinous rice balls, sweet black sesame filling, £2.50

Bar Shu, 28 Frith Street, London W1D 5LF. Tel: 020 7287 8822

See a map of Bar Shu here >>

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