How much you know about the Chinese province Hunan, or to be more specific, Hunanese cuisine? I assume very little, as it was the case also for me until I recently dined at the Hunan restaurant Ba Shan in Soho.
Ba Shan which is conveniently located in the midst of Soho, is surprisingly inviting and decorative for a Chinese restaurant. It is part of a restaurant family with its bigger sister Bar Shu just across the road and its little brother Baozi Inn some roads down both serving delightful Sichuan food.
While Cantonese cuisine from the South of China is a clearly distinct entity characterized by mild and subtle flavours, food originating in the Central Western Chinese provinces Sichuan and Hunan is much more difficult to distinguish. Sichuan cuisine, which has become increasingly popular over the past few years, is all about chili and Sichuan pepper, resulting in a â€˜hot and numbing heatâ€™. Compared to it, Hunanese dishes are possibly even spicier, but of a dry heat and of a cleaner taste.
Hunan restaurant in London are still very much a rarity. While Hunan in Pimlico is far too expensive and to be honest too pretentious to be enjoyed on a regular basis, Ba Shan is very affordable. I went to dine there with Mr. Noodles, The Grubworm and Cooking the Books, and we ordered so much! In the end we paid about 30-35 pounds each with loads of Tsing Tao, but you can keep your expenses down if you manage to pace yourself and don’t over-order. All the dishes are explained in the extensive menu and illustrated with pictures. This really helps with the decision making for the non-Hunan experts among us.
For me the weirdest dish of them all were the preserved duck eggs with chopped salted chillies. Preserved eggs, also called 100 year eggs, are made by putting them into a mixture of clay, salt, lime and ash for several weeks to several months and believe me, the result doesnâ€™t look nice. But nothing dared is nothing gained, and they tasted much better than they looked. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed the gelatinous texture of the dark gray eggs together with the hotness of the salty chili.
Very addictive were the Potato Slivers. For this dish, shreds of potatoes are just blanched and retain a crunchy texture. This dish came with dried chili and Sichuan peppers and I think this must be most delicious way to eat spuds. And there were more scrumptious vegetable variations yet to come: the stir fried Dried Radish had a curiously chewy texture and was served with Chinese bacon. Very salty, but very good!
Another highlight was Pounded Aubergine with Garlic and Sesame Sauce very much resembling the Mediterranean meze Baba Ganoush while the Hand torn cabbage with chili and vinegar made me forget that I usually really donâ€™t like cabbage.
I was blown away not only by the presentation but also the flavour of by the Steamed fish with chopped salted chili which came poached in a big bowl of orange broth topped with generous sprinkling of bright red chilli.
Pengâ€™s Beancurd named after a Hunanese chef and General Tsoâ€™s Chicken,which was possibly inspired by the famous Hunanese general did not blow me away but were pleasant enough. Â (read more about the North American origin of General Tso’s chicken here)
If you are an adventurous eater and if you donâ€™t mind having chili on absolutely everything (I have not tried their desserts but I would not be surprised if it came with chili too) you will love Bar Shan as much as I do. I advise to go there as a big group, order everything and share. But be warned though, this is a restaurant that doesnâ€™t recognize the concept of mains and starters and dishes are brought out all at the same time.
Should you be into cooking yourself and got inspired after reading about all these dainties, you must check out Fuchsia Dunlopâ€™s Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook which not only offers well researched recipes but also tells you about their history. She acted as a consultant for Ba Shan, and she did a good job…
- Food: 8/10
- Service: 5/10
- Ambiance: 7/10
- Value for Money: 8/10
- Chances of returning: 80%
- Verdict: Seriously great Chinese, ignore Chinatown and head for Ba Shan