Frith Street was constructed in the 1680s, and is named after a builder called Richard Frith. In the 18th and early 19th centuries it was a hub of artistic endeavour with writers and painters coming to live in the street. The young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart stayed at No. 20; famous landscape painter John Constable lived here. Of more interest to many is the little-known fact that between 1924 and 1926 John Logie Baird lived at No. 22; on 26 January 1926 he demonstrated television to members of the Royal Institution. The coffee shop Bar Italia occupies this address today and there is a blue plaque over the door to commemorate Baird’s first tentative TV transmission. Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club has been at No. 47 since 1965 and is an icon of good music and the Swinging Sixties.
This isn’t part of Chinatown proper, although there are a few Chinese restaurants dotted around. It’s an eclectic mix of cafés and small restaurants of every persuasion, but Barshu is justifiably one of the most respected.
Barshu has its focus firmly on the cuisine of Sichuan rather than the more usual dishes of Canton. If you have eaten Chinese food on your local high street it will likely be Cantonese food you have tried. Mild flavours, and dim sum for snacking. Sichuan food does, in comparison, have robust attitude and it’s addictive.
Sichuan is a province in Southwest China with its capital in Chengdu. The region boasts civilizations dating back to at least the fifteenth century BC. The people are proud of their cuisine, known as one of the Four Great Traditions of Chinese Cuisine. It is diverse but generally full-flavoured, spicy and hot.
Barshu is a portal into this vibrant food. The restaurant consultant is none other than Fuchsia Dunlop who has done so much to promote the cuisine of this region. Yes, she is European but has lived in the province and learnt to cook there. She has chosen dishes that are both traditional and appealing to non-Chinese.
The restaurant is, however, unmistakably Chinese, cosy and sporting a host of ethnic features. A large statue of the Buddha is prominent in the corner; elsewhere in the restaurant is a carved wooden screen and several painted masks from the Sichuan opera. The mask dance is striking, with actors sometimes changing more than 10 silk masks in less than 20 seconds!
The menu will be new even to those who are Chinese restaurant habitués. The staff will be happy to talk you through the dishes that will best suit your taste. Yes, that’s the word: ‘taste’. Plenty of chilli, but the addition of other spices makes these dishes rich and complex. The celebrated Sichuan pepper is also here in abundance. Sichuan pepper has a distinct perfume and flavour but it’s not hot like common black pepper. It has a slight citrus note and its famed characteristic is that it gives a slight numbness to the mouth. It sounds alarming but the effect is pleasing.
~We started with Northern Sichuan Pea Jelly. This was a plate of batons of opaque-white set jelly topped with a salty black bean sauce with a garnish of chilli oil. It might not sound riveting but it was a delight. The jelly is really a carrier of other flavours: it’s as much about texture as taste.
Chicken with Chilli and Tangerine Peel was spicy, with the occasional shred of fruity and intense tangerine tang. Fuchsia has a recipe for the beef version in one of her books so I knew this would be worthy of inclusion in our selection. They serve large portions at Barshu so this plate would have worked equally well as part of the main course.
Sichuan pickled vegetables are the usual garnish to any Sichuan meal. The vegetables were crisp, vibrant with a light vinegar and were a perfect foil to the spice of the other dishes. A starter, yes, but I would order a portion of this to graze on throughout the meal.
Gong Bao Chicken with peanuts is unmissable, and is a dish named after Ding Baozhen (1820–1886). He served as governor of Sichuan province. His title, Gong Bao, can be translated as ‘palatial guardian’. Kung Pao chicken is another name for this preparation, which has all the characteristics of classic Sichuan cuisine.
Another challenging title is Fish-fragrant Aubergines. In fact this doesn’t contain any fish – it is named ‘fish-fragrant’ as its combination of spices is more usually used to season fish dishes. This is a hot and sweet bowl (a rather large one) of piping hot aubergines, cooked till melting but still holding their shape. The sauce is chilli-laced but with sweetness. Even if you only have space for one vegetable dish then order this.
Barshu offers an array of dishes that you will not likely find elsewhere. The staff, unlike in many Chinese restaurants, are helpful, smiling and agreeable. But it’s that food that will assure your return. Rich, colourful and moreish.
28 Frith Street, London W1D 5LF
Phone: 020 7287 8822, 020 7287 6688
Fax: 020 7287 8858
Visit Barshu here
Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018