Still hot, numbing and exploding with flavour. Barshu has not thrown the baby out with the bathwater with this new makeover.
One pm in Soho, Friday, on the corner of Frith Street. ‘Where is everybody?’ says H peeking out through the slats at Barshu and out into the road.
Where indeed? Back in the day, pre-Covid, on a Friday lunchtime there would have been people everywhere in Soho – standing outside the pubs, packed into the restaurants or just moving purposefully about.
‘It’s not the same,’ she sighs, tweezering up a crispy piece of salt & pepper squid and popping it ruminatively into her mouth. ‘Nothing is the same’.
It’s true, even Barshu, where I’ve been eating on and off for over ten years, has had a makeover. It still feels the same though and the staff behind those fatuous paper masks still have the same cheerfulness of old. It’s just brighter and better now
And the food is still as good as ever, but now with extra dishes, and they’re still serving the kind of authentic Sichuan meat dishes that scare most non-Chinese half to death, including me.
Dishes such as ‘Assorted meats in fiery sauce (duck blood, honeycomb beef tripe, beef tripe, pig’s intestine, luncheon pork, etc)” for example. I wish I had the bottle to try it.
The menu is new,big and glossy, clearly fresh from the printers, and full of high-quality photographs. It goes on for pages and pages and you can easily find yourself going back and forth forever. Just what to have?
Well a mix of old and new suited us for starters, that classic salt and pepper squid for example. Colourful, crispy and fresh, all the dish lacked, for me, was more salt. Perhaps I was wrong about that, because I did end up drinking almost a gallon of Barshu’s excellent jasmine tea over the course of lunch.
Classic too was the sweetcorn soup, perhaps the first Chinese dish I ever ate when Chinese restaurants were still a novelty in the South London suburb where I grew up.
Back then I loved the strange glutinous texture of the soup and the egginess. I still do and Barshu, with the benefit of no doubt plenty of chicken bones for the stock, does an excellent version. Comforting and familiar, deeply flavoured
Unfamiliar can be good too though, and Sichuan pea jelly with chopped salted chillies was just that. Translucent green ‘logs slippery with fiery sauce. Handling them was like trying to pick up dropped shower soap with chopsticks, I finally resorted to fingers.
We liked the cool refreshing tones of the pea jelly against the chili, this would make a good vegan main with rice, depending on what’s used to solidify the jelly of course.
Sea bass has long been a Barshu staple, I had to have it but this time instead of the usual oven-roasted we had it in ‘soup’, Barshu calls it ‘boiled’ which rather undersells it.
We had Boiled Sea Bass fillet with chilis and Sichuan peppercorn, which was superb.
In the broth, semi submerged, was lots and lots of pure white seabass fillet lurking under environmental-disaster-sized slicks of fragrant oil. Slippery mushrooms and sweetly sour tomatoes evaded the spoon like playful dolphins, and everywhere bobbed the Sichuan peppercorn that makes this food so different from the largely Cantonese cooking of nearby Chinatown.
We ladled it over plain steamed Jasmine rice, because that broth was born to be absorbed and raved over our fish even as the peppercorn did its business on our lips. Why do we love the numbness and the citric shock of Sichuan? What alchemy makes it so addictive?
We didn’t need the Ma Po tofu, here given its less attractive name of ‘Pock-marked old woman’s beancurd’, but it was loaded with peppercorns and chili and was hard to resist, so we didn’t.
Barshu is not cheap, although you can always find plenty of well-priced dishes that deliver plenty of taste. Splashing out one of the sea bass dishes, which are easily shared is well worth it though. Go as a crowd and you can really dive into the menu.
Hopefully Soho will return to life and when it does Barshu will once again be one of its premier places to eat.
28 Frith St, London W1D 5LF