Fire and blood link Old Street and Liverpool Street
London’s ‘ethnic’ restaurants tend to be clustered together in specific neighbourhoods due to quirks of history and rent. The Korean restaurants of New Malden, the Sri Lankan eateries of Tooting and the little Vietnam that is Kingsland Road are just a few examples. Cuisines that have arrived in London more recently have tended to be less geographically concentrated for whatever reason (the chaos of the capital’s property market may have something do with it). There is thus no obvious centre for Sichuanese food (at least none that I have know of), with restaurants serving the cuisine popping up all over the place. The imaginatively named The Sichuan is located roughly equidistant between Old Street and Liverpool Street stations, smack bang in the weird hinterland between Shoreditch and the Square Mile.
What The Sichuan lacks in nominative originality and glossy decor, it more than makes up for in service. Inexpensive Chinese restaurants have a reputation for brusque service thanks to Chinatown, but the generally polite yet still efficient service here shows that this doesn’t have to be the case. The waitress across both of my visits (a middle aged lady with a slight limp) deserves particular credit for her warmth and charm.
Weekend dinner at The Sichuan
Sichuanese food is usually associated with odd cuts of meat and the numbing heat of the famed Sichuan pepper, so it’d be easy to overlook the ‘hand torn’ aubergine. Although served chilled, it was nonetheless easy to appreciate the buttery fleshiness of the straight edged slices of eggplant served in a bright and sharp vinegary sauce. Uncommonly lovely.
Red braised pork is a Sichuanese classic and the version here has much to recommend it. Tender and umami cubes of swine flesh were pleasing – especially the ones with soft, jelly-like layers of belly fat still attached. The pork was umami enough as it was, but the sticky sauce added an extra dose for good measure. A few choice chilli peppers counteracted the combined umami double whammy, preventing it from becoming too overwhelming. Cloves of fresh garlic mixed in were odd, but did add some variety. The chopped onions and bell peppers were superfluous though.
The dan dan noodles were surprisingly unremarkable with so-so noodles doused in a tame sauce. There was little in the way of numbing heat, mince or preserved vegetables, all of which made for an unsatisfactory side dish.
Weekday dinner at The Sichuan
As is common with many Chinese restaurants, most of the dishes at The Sichuan are big and thus designed to shared amongst a group. I therefore rounded up Veal Smasher, Happy Buddha, Templeton Peck and Vicious Alabaster for my second and final meal at The Sichuan.
The oddly named ‘man and wife’ offal slices made up for the tame dan dan noodles from my first meal. Wafer thin slices of tripe, tongue and other cheap cuts of beef were dressed in a sharp, sour and gently numbing sauce. If you love offal and sourness as much as I do, then this dish will be right up your street. If you don’t, then I don’t think we can be friends anymore.
Moist and mildly nutty chicken, finely sliced, came in a sharp and sour yet moreish and surprisingly refreshing sauce. All chicken should taste this good. Wrinkly bits of ear-shaped fungus were similarly sharp and sour and just as worthy of devouring.
Dry fried pork and beef paired a rather generic porcine mince with a much more pleasing helping of beef tendons. Squidgy and gelatinous, it was neatly complimented by the tart and numbing sauce even if it wasn’t quite as numbing as I had hoped for.
The main attraction that everyone was looking forward to was the grilled fish. The star here wasn’t the fish itself – meaty but ultimately a bit too stodgy. It was instead the cumulative numbing effect of the sauce and your choice of up to three extra ingredients cooked with and served mixed in with the fish. The highlights of Vicious Alabaster’s chosen trio were the bready tofu and, surprisingly, the supple and unexpectedly thick sweet potato vermicelli. The latter really hit the spot, especially as the meagre helping of enoki mushrooms disappointed all of us. The sauce could’ve been a bit more potent in its numbing effect, but it was still strong enough to be tingle-inducing.
There are only two desserts at The Sichuan, although they’re more like petit fours and they’re very Chinese, so they won’t suit pudding dullards whose palates barely extended beyond chocolate. Small sweet potato ‘cakes’ were more like deep-fried dumplings. The soft and yielding exterior was free from excess oil, while the gently sweet and fluffy filling might well be good enough to sway otherwise dedicated anti sweet potato fanatics.
Mochi-like balls were served in sugar syrup for reasons apparent to no one. The thin, gelatinous skin was delicate and slightly chewy – a textural combination that will put off some. It’s worth putting with though, given the bold distinctive nuttiness of the black sesame filling.
Although the strength of The Sichuan’s sichuan pepper-based sauces didn’t reach the debilitating sweat-inducing levels of numbness that I usually prefer, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This allows your mouth enough sensation to savour some of the more nuanced dishes on the menu from the aubergine to the chicken. There were a handful of duff dishes, most notably the limp dan dan noodles, but even that doesn’t detract from The Sichuan’s laudable ability to deliver generally accomplished dishes at low prices in a part of town where such a combination is anything but a given.
What to order: Hand torn aubergine; Red braised pork; Grilled fish; Offal; Chicken in special home made sauce; Fungus; Dry fried beef tendon
What to skip: Dan dan noodles
Name: The Sichan
Address: 14 City Road, London EC1Y 2AA
Phone: 020 7588 5489
Opening Hours: seven days a week noon-23.00.
Reservations: highly recommended on and around weekends; essential for large groups
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £26 approx.