I am the first person to admit that I am a terrible, terrible Asian. Take me out for spicy food and prepare to pretend you don’t know me. My eyes water, my nose runs, I gasp for breath and I drink any and every amount of liquid on the table in a feeble attempt to quell the pain.
I know. I am embarrassed too.
So it was with great apprehension that I agreed to visit Ba Shan with a spice-loving friend (Prowler) one evening for a post-work feed. Namely because I was far too proud to back down and suggest a less heat-filled dinner elsewhere. He was not to know that even though I play the Asian part deceptively well in the appearance department, it does not carry through to my weak, chilli-averse palate. That part, I get from my father and my father alone.
But I must say…all that stress in the lead up to dinner (yes, I do stress about these things) was energy wasted. I actually thoroughly enjoyed it, from the gently warming chilli to the lip-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. I was a sold woman. So much so, it even led me to bring a little spicy inspiration into my home kitchen for the first time!
Located in London’s Soho, Ba Shan serves up spicy Hunanese cuisine in a Chinese-style inn that exudes a comforting feel of the traditional (I can only assume, having never actually been in a traditional Chinese inn…). In any case, it is a charming space spread over two floors, pulled together by a collection of interconnected wooden rooms, each of which is minimally decorated with would-be-ancient Chinese bric-a-brac (think lanterns, bird cages and all of that). I like it!
The first of the dishes that Prowler insisted we try were potato slivers with chilli and Sichuan pepper (£6.90). What an odd recommendation. I secretly rolled my eyes in the back of my mind, but decided to go along with it.
Holy crap. These were delicious. Who would have thought! I could not stop eating the carb-filled little strands and my chopsticks kept finding their way back for more and more. I am not entirely sure what the addictive dressing was comprised of, but there was definitely some toasted sesame oil and perhaps a little Chinese black vinegar. Give me more of this and I shall never again shy from potato! The humble spud has been re-born in my eyes.
Next up were slivered pigs ears with spiced beancurd (£12.90). These may cause a great number of people to recoil…but not I! I grew up schnacking on these and I absolutely adore their gelatinous-come-cartilage-crunchy texture. I spent the majority of the meal picking around the tofu for more of my favoured ear pieces and definitely enjoyed more than my fair share – although I doubt that this was hardly to Prowler‘s disappointment.
I could give or take the boiled minced pork dumplings (£7.90) as this style of dumpling doesn’t really do all that much for me. The filling was tasty, if a little under-seasoned, and I found the skin to be a little on the thick side. Furthermore, the cooking method deemed them somewhat slimy…not my favourite of textures. The best part about this dish was the Chinese black vinegar dipping sauce served on the side. I can never get enough of that stuff and I am pretty sure it can improve most things (it certainly does in my kitchen, anyway).
Another highlight of the meal were the ‘immortal’ soft shell crab (£18.90). What exactly makes them immortal, I am not entirely sure. But my god, these were good. So very, very good. Maybe even the best soft shell crab I have ever had! Perfectly seasoned and wonderfully spiced, the batter was light and completely non-greasy. I will be coming back just for another plate of this!
By this stage, having had far more than my fair share of pig ears and potato slivers, I was getting rather full. But being the trooper I am, I gave Chairman Mao’s red braised pork (£12.90) a good go. Generous cubes of glossy slow-cooked pork belly carried a good meat-to-fat ratio and came in a velvety sauce flavoured with soy sauce, Shaoxing, star anise and cassia. A well-made classic, but nothing groundbreaking.
Last to the table were the steamed spare ribs with glutinous rice (£12.90). Not the best ending to my happy beginnings. I don’t know what it is about glutinous rice, but I absolutely hate it. I think it stems from the old days, when I would open my school lunch box and die a little on the inside when I realised Mumford had packed me a little banana leaf wrapped parcel full of the stuff…worst.lunch.ever.
I nibbled uninterestedly on a rib (which was actually rather nice) and largely left the remainder of the dish to Prowler.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my meal at Ba Shan. In fact, my experience here proved to be a turning point for me in terms of discovering that I need not be afraid to bring a little spice into my life. Even more than that, in balanced proportions, I really quite like it!
Not all the dishes did it for me, but I was more than pleased to discover a good collection of ones that I would definitely go back for and happily order again. Plus I just noticed they have dry wok duck tongues on the menu…
24 Romilly Street,
London, W1D 5AH
T: 020 7287 3266