Diners who found themselves in London with a yearning for northern Chinese food used to have a hard time, given that the vast majority of Chinese restaurants in the British capital run by southerners from Guangdong and Hong Kong served mediocre approximations of it at best. The opening of Ba Shan, in Soho's Romilly Street, will therefore please purists.
Serving xiao chi small dishes inspired by the street food of Sichuan, Henan and Shaanxi provinces Ba Shan is the newest venture from Shao Wei (who helped pioneer authentic Sichuan cooking in London with his Soho restaurant Bar Shu). It has been put together in consultation with food author Fuchsia Dunlop, the first Westerner to graduate from the Sichuan Culinary Institute. "My role is to mediate between Western taste sensibility and Chinese authenticity without compromising on delicious and diverse tastes," she says.
All the mind-numbingly hot dishes are there if one wants them. But most of the dishes on Ba Shan's long menu are a harmonious mix of sweet, sour, salty, woody and zesty. As appetizers, try the aromatic preserved radishes with sesame, the cucumber salad with scorched chili and Sichuan pepper, the "good luck" rolls of chicken and nori, and the crisp broad beans with "fish fragrant sauce" ("actually pickled chili, ginger, garlic, spring onion, vinegar and sugar," explains Dunlop). Segue to a mesmerizing array of delicate dumplings (the wrappers are made fresh each day in the kitchen and are fetchingly dyed with juices of spinach, red cabbage and other vegetables). A standout dish is rou jia mo: springy homemade flatbread that is filled with cumin-scented beef and served warm in tiny folded-paper parcels.
Ba Shan is housed in a heritage building on several floors, each decorated with wooden screens, dangling lanterns and gilded birdcages in the Chinese folk manner. One room is decked out like a noodle shop, another like a Chinese wine store. Most fitting, considering the delightful show that comes with dining xiao chistyle, is the room that resembles a shadow-puppet theater. For reservations, call (44-20) 7287 3266.