I know there are some good restaurants in and around Chinatown but they are famously few and far between. It’s a universal truth that the best food in any city will not be found in areas where business is supported by tourists. Those folks are a one-time hit: the restaurants don’t expect them to return and often the quality of the food would discourage an encore anyway.
Most restaurants seem to be Cantonese. Lots of dubious buffets (I would love to find an exceptional one) and menus sporting lists of the usual suspects. One can guarantee at least a brace of gloopy and luminous sweet-and-sour dishes and probably a spring roll or two filled with what one might suspect are yesterday’s leftovers.
The Empress of Sichuan isn’t in the main drag of Gerrard Street where groups of excited European and mystified Chinese tourists throng. It’s at the west end of Lisle Street, the end farthest from Leicester Square Underground station. It occupies the former site of Taiwanese restaurant Keelung, which wasn’t around too long. It has a tastefully muted exterior and seems almost shy and looking to be anonymous.
At first sight it appears to be a rather small restaurant but it has a capacity of 120, plus another 16 in the private dining room. It has banquettes, screened nooks and secluded wings, as well as a basement with more seating. It’s a contemporary space with an impressive display of fine wines. We sat beneath a print of Cliff and the Shadows which revived memories of Soho in the 60s. Lots of warm wood and muted lights.
Sichuan cuisine is vibrant. Other restaurants might offer a couple of dishes from that repertoire and will think themselves daring. The Empress of Sichuan, however, has an extensive bill of fare and it’s predominantly Sichuanese. Spice is the key. Red chilli and Sichuan pepper are used in great quantities and to good effect. It’s not about heat but flavour. The Sichuan pepper lends a soft but mouth-numbing and instantly recognisable note – almost perfumed and an indispensable ingredient in so many dishes.
Be bold. Take advice from the knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff and try some of the large array of flavourful dishes. We ordered Pigs’ Ears with Chilli Oil. These were bacon-thin slices, rather than large floppy lugs drooping over the edge of the plate. Think comforting and gelatinous texture, and mouth-filling and warming chilli. Moreish.
The must-try starter is Marinated Lamb Skewer. The grilled meat was tender, moist and delicate, and aromatically delicious. This must be a signature small plate and well worth ordering. This cuisine is best enjoyed with friends: choose a selection of dishes to share, taste a little of this and a bite of that to create a striking meal.
My guest was tempted by some Aromatic Duck. Yes, this one is ubiquitous on Chinese menus but it’s popular because it’s a convivial and theatrical dish. Done well, it’s an event in its own right. Your server will present your portion of duck and deftly shred it before your very eyes. There will be the usual garnishes and all to be wrapped in steamed pancakes.
Spicy Aubergine with Minced Pork was the first of our main dishes. The meat is used here almost as a condiment. The vegetable is the star with its dressing of sweet garlic, bathed in plenty of silky sauce, and it was awarded one chilli’s worth of warning on the menu. A must-try dish if ever there was one.
We were persuaded by the Lobster with Red Chilli. This had the two-chilli warning on the menu but it was just gloriously rich and warming, and far from the searing heat that one might have expected …or dreaded. A spectacular presentation and the only thing lacking was a hunk of French bread. Yes, we had ample rice but that amazing dish somehow needed a dipping accompaniment to soak up all those very red juices. A shame to waste any.
The Empress of Sichuan presented us with outstanding food. The staff were a considerable cut above those in most other Chinese restaurants. The whole experience was charming and I venture to say that this restaurant should have a long and secure future. I trust they will maintain their standards of both food and staff. Perhaps we will drop by from time to time just to check. A responsibility that I will undertake with great pleasure.
Monday – Wednesday 12pm to 10.45pm
Thursday – Sunday 12pm to 11.15pm
Empress of Sichuan
6 Lisle Street, Chinatown, London WC2H 7BG
Telephone: 020 7734 8128
Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018