Jim and Jane are a couple of fellow hedonists and now regular contributors to the Hg2 Blog. Their identities? A mystery. We’ll be bringing you their restaurant reviews each and every week. This week the couple finish off a long week at Ba Shan, one of Soho’s coolest Chinese establishments.
Read their last review on Villandry here
Check out their blog here
Ba Shan, 24 Romilly Street, W1D
Jane: They say a picture is worth a thousand words but menus with pictures worry me. They remind me of a last-minute road trip I took through France recently after French air traffic controllers decided to stage a strike on the day my plane was due to leave. Without hesitation my travel companion booked the ferry from Dover and, as a result, we spent 11 hours driving through the French countryside on the way to Cap D’Agde, a famous naturist resort near Bezier. Stopping every few hours along the way, I became very familiar with the French motorway café menu, usually illustrated with pictures of dishes that had become familiar to me through my dining experiences with Jim but were as far removed from those same experiences as a Hilton Hotel is to a Premier Inn. It was food in name only.
‘Do you fancy living on the edge?’ asked Jim last week. ‘Somewhere Asian perhaps?’
‘Asian?’ I said. ‘Are you sure you want to step outside your French comfort zone?’
‘Jay Rayner’s given this place called Ba Shan a big thumbs-up. I thought we might try some Hunan cuisine.’
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Chinese food ever since 1985 when I worked briefly as an assistant film editor for a man who insisted on going out for Dim Sum every day for three months. By the end of 90 days, I couldn’t look at pork dumplings or glutinous rice in lotus leaves without feeling sick and didn’t eat so much as a takeaway spring roll for a decade. But that was long ago, and over the years I’ve become reacquainted with Asian cooking, especially Vietnamese and Thai cuisine.
Ba Shan represents the Hunan province and the cosy restaurant, situated on the corner of Romilly and Frith Streets (across the street from its sister restaurant, Barshu), features a series of small room that give the impression of being in a discrete teahouse. If you’re looking for a place in which to hide, Ba Shan is for you. It’s the sort of restaurant you can meet a head hunter without worrying about getting caught out by your boss. It’s that discrete. Our particular room contained four small tables, two of which were occupied by Asian women eating massive bowls of noodles, always a good sign. Arriving early, I was given the A3-size picture book, giving me ample time to cast my eye over the foreign dishes.
Hunan food is not for the faint-hearted. There’s no Chow Mein or Chop Suey or Singapore Fried noodle. The introduction on the Hunan menu makes a huge point of mentioning that in Hunan it’s all about the hotness. The food was distinguished on each page by the level of chillies (one to three) in each dish. Such markers were useful for a wimp such as myself who prefers to leave a restaurant with my tongue intact.
Despite the pictures, I still had no idea what to eat. A French menu I can work my way around, Italian is easy, too, but the Hunan province is on another level. It’s like climbing Mount Everest when you’ve never been farther than the Brecon Beacons. I consider myself adventurous but still prefer to eat animal body parts with which I am familiar. This wiped out five or six dishes on the extensive menu. Looking at the pictures, I struggled to find one dish I recognised, eventually leaving it up to Jim to choose.
Jim: Pictures in a restaurant always give some cause for concern. ‘Not to worry,’ I said to Jane, ‘you are in safe hands. Have I misguided you on culinary matters in the past?´
‘Yes,’ came her unexpected reply. There were a number of options for nose to tail eating, but we did not go for the Pig’s Ear or sweetbreads prepared Hunanese style.
Jane and I are both big fans of experience and pleasure. We will try anything once, so I was keen to introduce Jane to the pleasures of a chilli-induced endorphin rush. After all, she is partial to endorphin rushes from activities in the boudoir so maybe she could add chilli euphoria to her list?
Definitely not a wine-matching restaurant, much more a chilled lager or even better a nice chilled dairy-based drink to cool the fire in your mouth and belly.
We tucked into our pre-lunch drinks and studied the pictures. We went for a balance of pungency and heat with a few smoked and pickled vegetables just for good measure. Glass noodles with funky mushrooms in chilli-steeped vinegar; dry-fried prawns with at least a hundred chillies and whole cloves of garlic; and a nice steamed Pak Choy covered in a gingery onion sauce. Steamed rice assisted with fire management.
Vinegary noodles was a failure, not helped but the fact it was the most difficult food we have ever tried to eat with chopsticks. Dry fried prawns, however, were a tremendous success. I could not stop, and would certainly pay the price later in the day. Ms worked through the dishes with middling enthusiasm, but as is always the case a true sport when it comes to adventure.
A well-priced culinary adventure for the cold dark days of winter. Recommended.