28 Frith Street
W1D 5LF London
Tel. 020 7287 8822
Food type: Chinese (Sichuanese)
Food rating: 2/10
Nearest tube: Leicester Square
Website: Bar shu
A meal at Bar Shu was always going to be an interesting experience. After all, there is nothing mundane about Sichuanese cuisine. From the fiery piles of chillies to the tongue-numbing Sichuan pepper, the Sichuanese do put emphasis on spice. Although famed for its hot, fragrant, spicy cuisine, there are certain dishes from this region which have little or no spice – their tea smoked duck being a prime example.
It was a rainy Saturday night when I made a visit to Bar Shu, flanked by my trusty Chinese food experts B, D and J. Getting to the restaurant was a tricky business in itself as I was not familiar with the ins and outs of Chinatown. I somehow managed to get lost and found myself stumbling around the porn district instead. Nevertheless, I managed to make my way to the restaurant eventually – drenched wet of course thanks to the horrid weather.
The restaurant is divided into the ground floor dining room decorated with red lanterns and Chinese opera masks and the basement which is much quieter and has individually named dining rooms. Upon arriving, we were quickly whisked to our table downstairs. The dining rooms certainly have a feel of ancient China about them with wooden archways, old fashioned ‘antique’ style tables and chairs.
The menu seems authentic enough including the usual suspects such as Kung Po Prawns and Hot & Sour Soup. Interestingly enough, each item on the menu is accompanied by a photograph of the dish itself. Wasn’t it Gordon Ramsay who said during an episode of Kitchen Nightmares that pictures of food on the menu is simply tacky? Having pictures on the menu is certainly helpful especially for those unfamiliar with the cuisine. Most items are priced around the £8-10 mark, although seafood is particularly pricey and can cost as much as £28.
Hot & Sour Soup is synonymous with Sichuanese cuisine and tends to be a good yardstick by which to judge a restaurant. After all, the Chinese do place a huge importance on the art of soup drinking. The soup can be spiced by either red peppers or white peppers and soured by vinegar. The version here contains a good dose of Sichuan peppercorn but was sadly lacking in a significant sour punch. More hot than sour. Tofu, wood-ear fungus and thin strips of bamboo shoots were added for texture. (1/10)
A cold appetiser of jellyfish ribbons was lightly dressed with sesame oil and vinegar. The jellyfish had good texture, with the acidity of the vinegar well balanced by the intense nuttiness of the sesame oil. (2/10)
Sea Bass was served in a pool of oil filled with dried chillies and Sichuan peppercorns. The idea is that the thinly sliced fish fillets would be poached by the hot fragrant oil. While the fish was well cooked, I felt that this dish did not work for me – the heat from the chilli overpowering the delicate fish. Another problem I had with this dish was the way the fish was filleted making eating a frustrating exercise in bone removal. (2/10)
The stir fried lobster was downright poor. The lobster covered with copious amounts of cornflour before being cooked resulting in a gloopy, starchy sauce and slimy lobster. For some reason, they somehow thought it was a good idea to pair the lobster with buckwheat (soba) noodles. (0/10)
Dongpo pork knuckle is a dish named after the famed poet, Su Dongpo from the Song Dynasty who hails from Meishan county, Sichuan province. The dish known version of the dish however hails from the Hangzhou region of China where it is traditionally made using pork belly which is slowly cooked in a soy based sauce. I had to double check the menu and the website to make sure I had got the name right as what was presented to us hardly resembled what I know as Dong Po pork. Leaving authenticity issues to one side, the pork knuckle was actually quite tasty. The pork, being benefiting from the slow cooking process was melting tender. The spicy and slightly sour sauce cut through the fat pretty well. (4/10)
A second pork dish in the form of the braised pork belly was equally as good. The pork again receiving the slow-cooking treatment but this time was accompanied by earthy Chinese mushrooms and a deep, rich sauce. (This dish actually bore more resemblance to Dongpo Pork than the pork knuckle did) B mentioned that the version here was better than the one he had at Min Jiang (where it is served with Man tou). (4/10)
Lastly, a plate of fried Kai Lan was featured fresh, tender vegetables which was time correctly. Kai Lan when not at its absolute best can end up being fibrous and tough, which was certainly not the case here. (5/10)
I may not know as much as I should about Chinese cuisine (and indeed Sichuanese food) but ultimately I did not enjoy my experience here. The authenticity at Bar Shu is not in question (well… the pork knuckle aside). What I was disappointed with was the level of cooking on display, especially when some of the prices quoted were quite extravagant. £28 for lobster is something you would expect to pay in a French restaurant but was executed so poorly. More annoyingly was the order in which the dishes were brought to us. Both pork dishes were brought to us before our soups and cold appetisers had arrived. In fact, the pork was brought to us less than 5 minutes after placing our orders. While I appreciate the fact that both pork dishes would have already been prepared in advanced and only needed to be plated, serving them before starters is simply ridiculous. Service was also indifferent with them forgetting my request for a glass of tap water (this despite being one of only three tables in the basement dining room). It is worth noting that the restaurant has a one and a half hour seating policy although this was not enforced when I visited.