For some, spicy food is considered an endurance test, but for many it's an awakening, a base pleasure to be sought in as many forms as possible, be it a simple extra grind of pepper over weeknight cheese on toast, a chilli-infested broth, or a fiery Saturday night curry.
I adore heat. A grind of pepper is as important as a pinch of salt, and chilli flakes are always close to hand. About time, then, that I try out a Sichuanese restaurant.
Bar Shu sits at the corner of Frith Street in Soho, on the edge of Chinatown. It opened - to much excitement and high praise in foodie circles - in 2006, and boasts a renowned food writer as its consultant: Fuchsia Dunlop, an Oxbridge-educated cook, fluent in Mandarin, educated and initiated in Sichuanese cuisine in Chengdu, China. Being the only Western woman who knows her Sichuan stuff and writes about it prolifically and well, it seemed we were in safe hands.
Marched rather brusquely by front-of-house to the table where friends had already been seated, on the first floor, I had little time to take in the surroundings, though I remember recalling Bam-Bou on Percy Street, similarly decked out as it is, tea-house style, with ample carved dark wood furnishings.
The laminated menu was luridly eye-catching, filled with gaudy photographs of each dish. Pitched as a catch-all collection of authentic dishes, the choice was overwhelming. Spice is a given though, as is a generous selection of offal.
The region's signature spice, Sichuan pepper, features in almost every dish. A pod, not a chilli pepper, it's Grade A, high definition spice. Not for the faint-hearted, it numbs the lips, momentarily anesthetizes the palate, then smothers the mouth with a warm pungent fiery glow. Heat-lover heaven.
So, we went for a selection of cold starters (they're all chilled), a plate of offal, a plate of veg, and two meat dishes.
The "smacked cucumbers" starter was a winner: Cucumber whacked with a cleaver, like a coconut, so it breaks open into generous chunks, pickled in a fragrant sour dressing. I've recently become a fan of cooked cucumber, and vastly prefer it cooked/pickled over fresh.
Dry-fried green beans £8.90. I was informed by one of my companions, who has spent time studying in China, that this dish is made from yard-long beans, and that the secret to their moreishness is the tiny specks of minced spiced pork it is stir-fried with. Life as a vegetarian in China must be tough...
Fish-fragrant aubergine £8.90. Expensive for a plate of cold aubergine, I thought, but the slimy, slithery chunks were divine. Sweet and sour, in equal intensity.
Slivered pig's tripe in chilli oil £6.90. One of my fellow diners' favourites. It sounds distinctly unappetizing, and I can't promise I would have chosen it if not cajoled. The cold tripe slivers do indeed sit in a pool of oil, but the intense savoury "umami" combination of spice, sugar, and oil, is addictive. I couldn't identify any flavour of tripe, though, to my quiet relief.
Gong Bao chicken with peanuts £10.90. A Sichuan classic, this one packed a punch. Crammed with peanuts, the Sichuan peppercorns pervaded the dish, packed into every sticky crevice. Again, a touch of the expensive side, but given I took home the leftovers and they kept me going for two more meals, I can hardly complain.
Bar shu red braising pork £10.90. This was good, but not outstanding. I adore fatty belly pork, but this meat was perhaps not top quality. The flesh was amazingly a touch dry (sitting in liquid, surrounded by fat, you'd think this would be hard to achieve). Perhaps one to give a miss, next time.
Numbing and hot sliced beef £8.90. Wonderfully spiced, but again, I would just question the quality of the meat. It resembled the thin slices of overcooked beef you find languishing under heat lamps in a chain pub carvery.
I was impressed by the flavours and execution at Bar Shan, but the meat - I have a sneaking suspicion that this is where they cut corners. This meal was not cheap: we spent £35 a head, and two of us weren't on the booze. At that price, meat quality should not be questionnable. I hear Mark Hix likes Gourmet San on Bethnal Green Road, a recommendation definitely worth following up.
'Chinese' food in the capital is most often Cantonese, 'Indian' most often Bangladeshi, and all largely offer a one-dimensional spice fix. Try Bar Shu: it's a unique culinary experience. If it was a touch more keenly priced, and stepped up on meat quality, it would be worth a pilgrimage, not just a bus ride.