When the beads of sweat begin to bud on your brow, just below the eyes, and on the bridge of your nose; when the pace of your heartbeat increases with every mouthful of food; and when the burning sensation on the roof of your mouth rises just to the point of being uncomfortable, that is when you know you’re in the midst of a good Sichuan feast.
It’s that pleasure and pain thing, isn’t it? A rush of endorphins caused by the consumption of capsaicin. Immediate relief is a cold glass of milk … but of course you instead glug back some fizzy beer and take another bite of whatever caused the discomfort in the first place. Hot Damn, until the morning after, Sichuan is so good.
Actually, whilst I am by no means an expert on the cuisine that originates from its eponymous province in Southwestern China (look to Fuchsia Dunlop for that – she’s excellent), I do know good food from that region typically balances a number of elements alongside the heat of a chilli. Sichuan pepper is prominent, of course – this might be ground fine, lightly bashed to release the husks, or infused into oil, but ultimately adds depth and a lemony fruitiness, as well as a tingling, numbing but surprisingly pleasant sensation at the tip of your tongue; garlic is used liberally for pungency; the sweet, sour, bitter, and salty taste receptacles of the tongue should be invoked too.
This complexity appeals far more to me than the average Saturday night ‘Chinese’ takeaway, and, happily, there are a few very dependable and popular Sichuanese restaurants in London where my occasional urges can be sated. Chilli Cool always does the job and I’ve heard good things of Sichuan Folk in Shoreditch. Chinatown (of all places!) is also worth heading to. In the past I’ve enjoyed Bar Shu and its sisters (Bar Shan and Baozi Inn). But a week or so ago I went for the first time to Empress of Sichuan, and I reckon it lived up to its name.
A deceptively large restaurant, Empress of Sichuan sits on Lisle Street and is an oasis of order and calm in the face of the Leicester Square hustle and bustle. I went in a group of four, which is probably the minimum number you need to enjoy a decent variety of food. Marched past the ubiquitous fountain, replete with fake grass, and plonked in a super little banquette, we sat, and ate, and gasped, fidgeted and sweated our way through a bunch of mostly great dishes.
We started with three appetisers, all of which were served cold. I felt marinated black fungus with sour and sweet chilli was probably the best of them, and loved the balance of sour and sweet pickling juices with the latent heat of raw chilli against the cool temperature and almost rubbery texture of the dark fungus (a thin mushroom). Marinated cucumber with garlic and sesame oil were pungent and nutty, but were sliced and hard, whereas I have a personal preference for cucumbers that have been firmly whacked and smashed with a heavy object. I enjoyed the sweetness and heat of the ‘Bang Bang’ sauce, glooped over shreds of chicken, but thought the meat itself lacking in flavour and I wondered whether cold was the best way to show off this dish.
Things kicked quickly on from then. Minced pork with shreds of black fungus came in a savoury sauce, with a chilli element that built gradually and lasted. And lasted. For about 24 hours.
The big bowl of mapo tofu at the top of this post had more fire than other examples I’ve eaten recently and balanced this with faint sweet and sour notes, as well as plenty of soft and soothing (if difficult to catch) tofu. Beef with chilli and peanuts contrasted well against our pork choices and also provided the best and biggest combination of salty crunch and aromatic and tongue numbing Sichuan pepper. I loved the visual impact of what is basically a plate of dried chillis too.
When ordering, I thought Chinese cabbage with red chilli and vinegar would have been a nice fresh bowl of briefly stir fried leaves, lightly dressed with vinegar and chilli, but the cabbage was, in fact, submerged in a warm, brown vinegar based sauce. Though it didn’t provide the expected texture contrast, it was still pretty damn tasty. Soft yielding chunks of aubergine and minced pork could well have been my favourite dish and will be first on my list when I go back; it was a crowd pleaser, and one I hope to use as a negotiation tool when trying to sneak a few of the more offal based dishes onto our order. Which was not something my fellow Ang-Mohs could be persuaded to tuck into on this occasion.
It wasn’t fancy, but it was a genuine feast. Whilst filling and fiery, the meal was also varied and interesting and the flavours and sauces were clean, rather than sickly and heavy, as you might fear they could be. Service was efficient and effective and occasionally even included a smile. Which was nice. And despite the quantity of food and a fair few beers, we walked out into the crisp night feeling like we’d had a very fairly priced meal, and one that we would repeat, very very soon.
Empress of Sichuan in 3 words
Pleasure and pain.
Provided you’re in a group of four or more, about £30-35 a head for plenty of food, beers and service.
Empress of Sichuan is at 6 Lisle St, WC2H 7BG – 020 7734 8128