A tingling sensation
William Skidelsky samples the fiery, mouth-numbing delights of Sichuan cuisine
A couple of years ago, I bought a jar of Sichuan peppercorns at a food festival in Italy. Small and pink, with a citron-like perfume, these are notable chiefly for their amazing aftertaste. It starts as a gentle tingling on the tongue, but soon develops into an all-consuming, burning sensation that leaves your eyes watering and your mouth numb. (You'd feel something similar, I imagine, if you ran your tongue along an electric fence.) Depending on who you are, the experience is either perversely satisfying or an unusual form of torture. I rather enjoy it, but there are people to whom I've handed one of the peppercorns with the words "Try this - I think you'll like it" who to this day refuse to see the funny side.
Whether or not a person enjoys eating a Sichuan peppercorn is, I would guess, a fairly reliable guide as to whether they will like Bar Shu. This recently opened restaurant in Soho, central London (28 Frith Street, W1; 020 7287 8822) is one of the few in the capital to specialise in Sichuan food.
The cuisine of China's Sichuan province is celebrated for its fiery decadence, but for some reason it has not spread to the rest of the world in the same way as Hong Kong Cantonese has. A meal at Bar Shu is not to be undertaken lightly. If you're not the kind of person who likes the sound of "numbing and hot dried beef" or "fire-exploded kidneys", I'd advise you to steer well clear. But if you are, then I doubt you'll find a more enjoyable place to eat this side of Chengdu.
A Sichuan meal typically starts with a selection of cold appetisers. Many of these are intriguingly named: "man and wife's offal slices", "pockmarked old woman's bean curd". We opted for slivered pig's tripe and preserved duck eggs with mushrooms. The eggs looked not so much "preserved" as "rotten": their yokes were a lurid green colour, their whites a translucent brown. But they tasted exceptionally good, as did the tripe slivers, which were served with a deliciously moreish chilli sauce.
The main course was even better: an enormous crab topped with ginger and bamboo, accompanied by two pairs of shell-crackers and implements for gouging out the delectable, almost custardy flesh. It was impossible to eat without making a mess, but that seemed in keeping with the spirit of the place. Eating Sichuan food is a whole-body experience: you feel its effects from your hair follicles to your armpits. It is food that begs you to get stuck in.
What is particularly impressive about Bar Shu is that it is a restaurant without pretension. Usually restaurants that are "superior" announce themselves as such through the glitziness of their decor. Bar Shu, despite being fairly expensive, looks little different from most of the restaurants in nearby Chinatown. It is pricey because of the effort that has been put into the food. And so you end your meal not just with a tingling sensation in your gums, but with a feeling that your money has been put to good use.