My first read through Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuan Cuisine was a seminal moment in my life. I'd always been a fan of Chinese food and here was something that was obviously Chinese but also so obviously different from anything I'd seen. I'd had Kong Pao Chicken from English takeaways but nothing in this book resembled the sticky battered chicken and peanuts, just recipe after recipe of chillies, Sichuan pepper, oil and offal along with stories of however many different cutting methods and the careful balancing of hot, sour, salty and sweet - I literally couldn't find a recipe I didn't want to eat. Within a couple of years I was travelling around China, eating my way through Chengdu and it's not stretching the truth to say how big a part that book played.
Sichuan cookery (chuāncài/川菜) is now my favourite cuisine so you'd think I'd be lapping up the trend for Sichuan eateries in London. Truth be told though I very rarely make it to any of them, I've eaten in Snazz Sichuan and love a quick bite in Baozi Inn but as far as meals out go I find it quite tricky to find people who fancy the onslaught of heat. The one time I did manage to drag folk out (my birthday, the aforementioned Snazz Sichuan) I received a few unhappy texts the next day as people dealt with the morning after effects of bowls full of oil and chili, it's not been repeated.
Today I had a bit of time on my hands at lunch though and a quick look in the newish Empress Sichuan window showed me a lunch menu I'd not noticed before. With lots of things sub £5 it looked perfect for a quick bite. Being well versed in the art of solo Chinatown lunches I headed in and the first thing that hit me was how far removed from my usual Chinatown lunch this was. No angry Wong Kei waiters and wipe clean tables here - mood lighting, racks of wine, tablecloths and, for some reason, rock and roll music and
memorabilia. A cheerful waitress showed me to my booth but I declined the menu, having made my mind up the instant I saw the list outside. There are few things in the world tastier than pig stomach (and when eating Sichuan it has to be offal) so 'noodles with pig stomach in a spicy sauce' was requested. Wanting to test the kitchens with something I'd eaten in Chengdu, and made myself from Fuchsia, zhong dumplings with chili completed the order.
The noodles arrived, flat wheat noodles (no egg in the Sichuan style) bathed in a deep red glossy broth and speckled with the lumps of intestine. Sichuan food is very hot and should make you sweat and the colour of this red liquor suggested it would do what it should. The first mouthful let me know there wasn't going to be any sweating today though. There was chili, sure, but in no great quantity, not something I would expect from any Sichuan food really, let alone something described as spicy. Over my shoulder I heard another lone diner ask for chili sauce. There really should be no need for that when eating this cuisine, the gf frequently cites not being able to eat for a week when we were in Chengdu and here folk were asking for extra chili. Don't get me wrong, this was a gorgeous bowl of noodles - the noodles had just the right chew, the soup was rich and meaty with the smoky hint of sesame oil lingery on the palate, the pig intestine was flavoursome and cooked beautifully, melting in the mouth which such rubbery organs are not want to do. It just didn't have much chili, I wasn't warm let alone sweating.
Next up were the zhong dumplings. I'd had these a few times in Chengdu and each time you had the wonderful balance of fiery oil and almost bland pork filling. Whilst these had more heat these were not the hottest zhong dumplings I've ever had, in fact they've not the hottest zhong dumplings I've had this week, the honour of that goes to a bowl I had in Cha Cha Moon at the weekend. Heat or not though these blew the Cha Cha Moon portion away which, whilst flavoursome and chili hot, suffered from a heavy handed sauce, more reminsient of bang bang/strange flavoured sauce with far too much oil and the overwhelming flavour of sesame paste shining through. This is before you've got on to the fact that they serve this sauce over won ton, crisp with water chestnut instead of the soft bite of a zhong dumpling. Add to this Cha Cha Moon charge over £4 for 4 and here I got about 10 for £3.80 and there's no comparison. Back to the sauce though and here it was delicious, oily too - as it should be - but balanced at the same time, hints of sesame oil and chili not overpowering the lightly flavoured pork filling, the whole thing lifted with the familiar citrus numbing of Sichuan pepper. My lips tingled and I scoffed the lot down in record time but I still hadn't managed anything near a sweat.
So first impressions of this place are mixed. The food is very tasty and the dining room a cut above most Chinatown restaurants. I think most folk would go here and absolutely love it, in fact based upon this it's a Sichuan place I could easily take the gf too, assuming she's not still too haunted by Chengdu to step into anywhere bearing the region's name. I'll be back myself too for lunch as it makes a lovely change from the Cantonese on offer everywhere else. As a hardened Sichuan cuisine eater though I would liked to have seen a lot more chili, leaving wet around the collar and flushed of cheek, and I will return of an evening to see whether the main courses will let me achieve that goal.
Empress of Sichuan
6-7 Lisle St,