Chinese restaurants get a lot of stick. At least, they do from me. This is because most of them are appalling.
Greasy piles of substandard meat and carbs swimming in radioactive sauces, slopped onto plates or stuffed into tin vessels, with a side of self-loathing big enough to make you want to drain the MSG directly from your veins. Menus read of generic fried vegetables with a stock protein in a thick sauce, dozens of chow mein options, and a selection of sweet and sour dishes and fried rices; plates of fodder adapted to be blander, thicker and sweeter for the Western palate. This is not what Chinese people eat.
These routine menu items do nothing to accurately represent the full repertoire of Chinese cuisine: the country is enormous, as is the range of cooking that goes on there. Food is regional and style is distinctive, with influences taken from resources, climate, geography, history, cooking techniques and lifestyle.
The province of Hunan is located in the south-central part of China; a little piece of it can also be found in Soho with the name of Ba Shan above the door. Owned by the people who run the Szechuan sister, Barshu, over the road, it boasts an all Hunanese menu developed with Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop. If your idea of a great meal is having your chops whalloped with fire and flavour, there is little need to entertain the thought of dining anywhere else in town.
Piquant preserved yard-long beans chopped into chewy segments provided an unusual but stellar texture for the vegetable. Stir-fried with stiff boards of salty Chinese bacon and slithers of preserved crisp garlic, it was a piled high plate of spicy and savoury splendour.
Square slabs of crispy fried tofu with soft middles saturated with black bean sauce squelched between the teeth, the dark viscous extract coating the inside of the mouth with its sloppy fermented pungency. Both plates were furnished with festive chunks of hot green chillies and even hotter red and both had me at their complete mercy – these are precisely the sort of flavour sensations my palate craves for on a daily basis.
A heap of aubergine mush pounded into submission with garlic and sesame presented still in its mortar, and a plate of slippery wood ear fungus, did wonders at pacifying blistering tongues. The glistening quivering dark mushrooms looked freshly hauled from a sea bed; dressed with vinegar, garlic and chillies they were cool, tangy, crunchy and slipped down barely touching the sides.
The restaurant decoration keeps with tradition, with Chinese lanterns, dark wood and walls adorned with images of Chairman Mao. Service was perfectly acceptable; whilst perplexity flashed across the faces of several waiters at the request of additional coriander (a request left unfulfilled – ‘it’s just for decoration, we don’t have any more’), tea was topped up, words were said smiling and despite advance warning of a 1.5hr time limit for the table, we were there for two with no problem. In other words, for a Chinese restaurant, the service was excellent.
The heat from Hunanese cuisine, whilst almost ubiquitous in its presence, is less of the type that leaves a fat tongue hanging out of your mouth in a desperate search for cold lactose. It’s more penetrating than that, permeating through to your core and the very marrow of your bones, leaving a subtle tingling sensation at the corners of your mouth on the way in. I don’t know how they do this, but it’s excellent.
This is food that doesn’t just pay a visit to your taste buds, it conquers them outright. Planting the flag of flavour firmly into its new found territory to mark its occupation, the food from Ba Shan will leave an impression deep enough that you won’t be able to hold off your next visit for too long.
Liked lots: all of the food; the location
Liked less: was a little quiet at the start, but background music played later on; the menu link on their website is broken (prevents pre-dining anticipation build up)
Good for: authentic, fresh, real, regional Chinese food at good prices; blasting away a cold
My rating: 4/5