Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Dinner @ Empress of Sichuan (Sichuan), London

There's no doubt that the Chinese dining scene in the UK has been reinvigorated by the spicy flavours of Sichuan. You should know by now that my fave is Chilli Cool but there are loads of Sichuan eateries across London with Soho's classy Bar Shu being the most renowned. More recently, I've tried Red 'N' Hot, which also has outposts in Birmingham and Manchester where it does battle with the highly acclaimed Red Chilli mini-chain. Even Chinese restaurants that aren't ostensibly Sichuan have dishes from this part of South-west China on the menu.

Now you'd think I’d be well chuffed that Sichuan cuisine is taking off but truth be told I'm worried as I fear it may go the way of many culinary trends with places serving up dumbed-down and inauthentic dishes. So would Chinatown newcomer, Empress of Sichuan be a welcome addition to the growing ranks of decent Sichuan restaurants or would it be a cynical attempt to cash-in on the latest trend ?

First impressions of this Lisle St restaurant were strong – I liked the classy look of the dining room although the retro photos of Cliff Richard & The Shadows and Tom Jones bemused me. If this incongruous décor sounds familiar, that’s because this restaurant has retained the fixtures and fittings of its predecessor, the short lived Taiwanese seafood specialist, Keelung. In actual fact, the management is still the same and the only thing that's changed is the menu and the name of the restaurant !

Joining me for this meal was fellow blogger, Luiz aka The London Foodie and his partner in crime, Dr G. We were going to go for a burger but Luiz twisted my arm to come here instead. And you know what, I'm so glad he did because any fears that Empress of Sichuan might not be up to scratch were soon dispelled when our order arrived:
  • Beef slices in extremely spicy soup aka water-boiled beef or shui zhu niu rou (£12.50)
  • Fragrant chicken with dried chilli pepper aka la zi ji (£13.00)
  • "Farmers Fish" – baked fish with spring onion, cumin & black bean (£21.50)
  • Spicy green beans with minced pork & preserved veg aka siji dou (£8.50)
  • Dan dan noodles (£4.80)
The classic beef and chicken dishes did not disappoint - they were both gutsy with the chilli and Sichuan peppercorn taking centre stage. The beef was very tender and the 'spicy soup' seemed more refined than I was used to, well as refined as a giant vat of chilli oil can be. La zi ji – chicken bits tossed with dried chilli and Sichuan peppercorns – is probably my favourite Sichuan dish and it was as good here as I've eaten inside or outside of China. This superior version of the dish was the real deal with the chicken served on the bone. 

So far so good but things got better with the star dish of the night, "Farmers Fish" which was the one dish that was new to us all. I'd love to take credit for ordering this but actually this was the one dish that I didn't order. In an attempt to shake off my control freak tendencies, I let my dining companions choose a seafood dish and Dr G certainly came up trumps with this choice. The fish was perfectly baked with the flesh flaking off under a coating of spring onion, cumin and black bean. Whilst this combo sounds full on and potentially overwhelming, the three ingredients combined well and extra rice was ordered to mop up this moreish coating.

Spicy green beans are a staple order at Sichuan restaurants and as you can see from the main photo, they were beautifully cooked here. There was more minced pork than other versions of this dish and you could also pick out the distinct taste of preserved vegetable too. We also enjoyed the dan dan noodles – more soupy than I'm used to but with the trademark Sichuan flavours.

Service was very good, probably because there were surprisingly few diners on this Thursday night. We were brought some tea after the meal and had a chat with the friendly head waitress. She explained that the head chef was from Chengdu as was most of the kitchen crew and that there was a 20% discount for the month of January. This discount will continue in February until St Valentine's Day (weekends excepted). Together with steamed rice and a couple of rounds of beer, the bill clocked in at £81 for three including service and the 20% discount. Even without this discount I would have happily paid my share of the £100 or so bill.

So how does this newcomer compare to other Sichuan restaurants in the capital ? As Empress of Sichuan is an elegant upmarket restaurant, I think comparisons with Chilli Cool are facile as the latter serves up rustic, almost home-cooked food in humble surroundings. Its main rival is therefore Bar Shu but I can't really make a comparison, as I haven't eaten there in years. That said it'd have to be pretty special to best Empress of Sichuan.

Verdict: If I eat a better meal this year, Sichuan or otherwise then I'll be a very lucky man. My only reservation is whether Empress of Sichuan can consistently deliver such high standards when it gets really busy. 

Other Stuff: The people behind this restaurant also operate Leong's Legends (Taiwanese) and Golden Harvest (Cantonese / Dim Sum) in Chinatown as well as the contemporary Chinese restaurant Goldfish in Hampstead.

Empress of Sichuan on Urbanspoon

{Update March 2010 - On a subsequent visit, I really enjoyed the starters of lamb skewers and a cold dish of cucumber marinated with garlic and sesame oil. Of the mains, I was a tad disappointed with the duck in beer & chilli sauce but only in comparison with the rest of the meal. But the coup de grace were the complimentary pumpkin pancakes and before you ask, no we didn't blag them as bloggers.}


  1. Oh the food looks really good! I'm in fact cooking some Jajiangmien tonight :), will post it in the next few days!

  2. Sounds great - thanks for the tip. I hadn't realized Keelung closed, but good to hear the space has been taken over by a worthy replacement (and how smart of the owners to just re-vamp the menu and name).

  3. Hey Sung, great review, thanks for the link too. I was saying to Dr G that I would also have been happy to pay the full bill for the food we ate that day. I will post my review sometime this.

  4. 3HT - the food was as tasty as it looked ! You should rustle up some dan dan noodles rather than jajiangmien !

    A-in-L - I never got round to trying Keelung ! I'll be interested in what you think of E of S.

    LF - looking forward to your review and thanks again for tipping me off about this place.

  5. Excellent! I am always happy when there's a new Sichuan place to try out.

  6. Haha has been eaten and posted, will make dan dan noodles soon.

  7. Lizzie - I think you'll like it here.

    3HT - I look forward to the dan dan noodles.

  8. I wish I had logged onto your blog whilst in Chinatown last before making a massively bad choice... This place looks excellent. To have a meal this good this early in the year hopefully bodes well...

  9. Tom - I hope this is the first of many great meals in 2010 ! With a few exceptions, like E of S for example, Chinatown isn't the best place in London for Chinese food. Its good for one-dish meals and picking up Chinese bakery but for dim sum or a nice dinner, I'd tend to go elsewhere.

    Anyway, the offer is always open to you (and Jen) to join me for a meal, Chinese or otherwise.

  10. I went here on Saturday night off the back of your post and I had a really great time! Definitely more expensive than the likes of Chilli Cool, but the food is seriously tasty. We had the crunchy vegetables in spicy sauce, the cold ribs with sesame and cumin, and the fish slices in extremely spicy water. All were brilliant - the fish, especially, was really well balanced. I'll definitely go back.

  11. Sharmila - I'm glad you liked it. I do get nervous when writing positive reviews in case the restaurant doesn't meet expectations.

  12. You don't want to worry about writing a positive review, after all it's just a snapshot on the night. It could get worse it could get better! Most people will read more than one review, it would be very foolish to rely on just one. I'm going there tonight actually, last time I went it was Keelung and I watched a certain well known critic behave appallingly rudely to a blameless young waitress half his size.