Friday, December 2, 2011

Gourmet San: Almost-There Sichuan Food in Bethnal Green

Name Gourmet San
Address  261 Bethnal Green Rd, London, UK E2 6AH
Phone 020 7613 1366
Web site none
Main dish price range £6-£14
Rating 4 stars.  Almost a masterpiece. 
Recommended dishes 
Stir Fried Aubergine with Spiced Chili Sauce

Gourmet San-- a tiny, Sichuan Chinese  restaurant in a the very not-central neighborhood of Bethnal Green--- quite improbably has one thing weighing heavily in its favor: Buzz, and LOTS of it.  The Guardian food critic has mooned over it.  An article in the Evening Standard said members of the "nose to tail set" and semi-celebrity chef Jacob Kenedy count as regulars.  All that sounded like mouth watering to me.  Never a fan of goopy, corn starchy Chinese food, I consider dry-fried, Sichuan food to be my drug of choice-- and I'd been feigning for it recently.  Bar Shu, the only other Sichuan restaurant we'd tried in London, so underwhelmed me and Nick (and was so expensive) we deemed it not even worthy of the time it would take to write it up. 

Spoils:  BBQ Lamb Skewer & Chicken with Chili Sauce in Chong Qin Style. 
When we rolled up on a recent Saturday evening, Nick and I were immediately felt our spirits lift. Like our favorite hole-in-the-wall ethnic haunts back home-- where the focus is on the food, not the decor--  Gourmet San is definitely low frills, a Spartan cousin to the decadent, red-tapestry draped atmosphere at Bar Shu.  The crowd also felt pitch perfect: About half the clientele on the evening we visited were Chinese, with trendy, young Shoreditchers making up the difference.

We  took a seat at a white, paper-covered table and quickly dived in by ordering one of the BBQ Lamb Skewers, which seemed to be a very popular item among the crowd the night we visited, with plates of them gracing nearly every table. At £1 a piece, the relatively simple skewers had a nice meaty taste, without being loaded with the cheap, cooking-oil flavor that can mar a lot of low-cost meat kebabs. Still, without the dry, spicy taste that true Sichuan enthusiasts love, we were ready to try the real stuff. 

The delectable Dry Fried String Beans with Mince Pork and Chili.
The first main dish we tackled: the Dry Fried Green Beans with Mince Pork and Chili (£6). This is a dish I've always loved at Sichuan joints, so I was excited when I saw it listed here as a "Chef Special"-- and it definitely didn't disappoint.  It had the perfect, dry-fried smokey flavor, and the bits of pork were excellent-- lightly fried and not so fatty as to overwhelm the dish. Peppercorns were also hidden throughout the stack of greens, adding a nice bit of grit between the teeth and adding the perfect, Sichuan taste. (Read: My mouth tingled with the familiar, loving numbness only Sichuan peppercorns can provide.) 

Things were slightly less impressive with another old-standard favorite of ours: Chicken in Chili Sauce Chong Qin Style (£8). For those unfamiliar with this stroke of Chinese culinary genius, this dish, from the town of Geleshan, China, is made by frying small nuggets of meat in a wok stacked high with a mountain of dried, red chilis, and supplemented with garlic, scallions, and peppercorns. When done well in the kitchen-- something Nick and I learned how to do reading Brit cookbook writer Fuschia Dunlop-- the chili-infused oil in the wok coats the rich chicken, infusing its with spicy moisture. Here, sadly, the chicken was too fried and dry for our tastes, and the ratio of chilis to chicken felt miscalibrated.  Instead of combing through the chilis to find the meat-- some restaurants literally nickname this dish "hunt and peck chicken" for that reason-- the meat was all clearly visible in this London version, perhaps a nod to the famed British aversion to spice.  

Brits call it aubergine, Americans call it eggplant.  I call it delicious!
The real masterpiece of the evening, however, came from an unexpected dish : The Stir Fried Aubergine with Spiced Chili Sauce (£7).  This eggplant/aubergine entree was bathed in mouth watering chili oil that achieved the perfect degree of reach-for-the-beer-glass kick.  And the chili-infused aubergines were so gooey and rich they seemed to coat our mouths, melting on our tongues as we ate them.  Nick and I talked it over after enthusiastically gobbling up every last bite and agreed this dish was quite possibly the best Asian aubergine dish we'd ever had-- a statement we don't make lightly. 

All in all, Nick and I felt excited about Gourmet San, which definitely showed some real flashes of genius.  I'm not quite ready to order it as takeout twice a week yet-- and yes, we did do that with our favorite local Sichuanese place in New York-- but I'm definitely eager to explore more of the menu. And if I change my mind, there's good news: The restaurant's delivery staff miraculously delivers all the way to Angel. 
Gourmet San on Urbanspoon