My first experience of Sichuan food was in Beijing about 10 years ago and I instantly fell in love with the mala numbing heat of Sichuan peppercorn (hua jiao). I always seem to end up eating too much Sichuan food when in Beijing and this trip was no exception. Of the places I went to, South Beauty was the pick of the bunch. It's a bit posher than the average Sichuan joint but good value from a non-local perspective. There are branches across Beijing and I went to the one inside the Henderson Centre.
One of my must-order Sichuan dishes is chilli fried chicken (la zi ji) - deep fried chicken cubes tossed with chilli, ginger, garlic and Sichuan peppercorn. The version here is beautifully presented and tasted as it should with the Sichuan peppercorns making my mouth tingle and my top lip numb (yes I'm a wuss). The only thing that spoiled this dish was the inclusion of what can only be described as ‘Bombay mix’. I don't mind peanuts being used to bulk out this dish but the ‘Bombay mix’ added nothing.
The stand-out dish was the tea smoked duck (zhang cha ya) which isn‘t mala but has a deep smoky flavour instead. This is due to a complex process which involves marinating the duck then smoking it over tea leaves. To cook the duck, it's steamed then deep fried until the skin is crispy. The duck is then cooled and served at room temperature with the little steamed buns that you make mini duck sandwiches with. I couldn't get enough of this dish and surprisingly it wasn't that greasy. If anyone has seen this dish in the UK then let me know - I'm not holding out much hope as it seems so complicated to prepare.
We also ordered the dry fried green beans (gan bian siji dou), Cantonese-style steamed flounder, vegetable jiaozi dumplings and a couple of forgettable cold dishes. Dry fried green beans are one of my faves and these were perfectly cooked as was the Cantonese-style steamed flounder which was a welcome counterbalance to the powerful spicy and smoky flavours of the Sichuan dishes.
Verdict: The classy interior and bilingual menu with pictures make South Beauty an 'easy' place to sample quality authentic Sichuan cuisine (notwithstanding the odd Cantonese interloper).
Other Stuff: Don't be put off coming here if you don't like spicy food as there are plenty of non-spicy options like tea smoked duck and twice-cooked pork that are worth checking out. But if you are a chilli-fiend then you should also try Hunan cuisine, it's arguably more spicy than Sichuan albeit without the mala.