BA SHAN: HIDDEN DUMPLINGS FROM THE BAR SHU PEOPLE
Talk about a soft opening, Ba Shan, the latest restaurant from the owners of Bar Shu (to be re-opened after a refurbishment at the end of May, we were told) is having an opening so soft it could be a fluffy kitten wrapped in feather pillows.
There is no sign above the door yet, still being painted in China we found out, and the only evidence that the building diagonally opposite Bar Shu is an eatery of any sort is the view of laid tables through the small windows and a sign by a buzzer saying “Press this bell for Ba Shan.”
As we peered through the window, a waitress appeared at the door and ushered us in, apparently remembering us from a previous visit to Bar Shu and assuming correctly that we had come to give the new place a try. If she had not, we would probably still have been there now arguing if it really existed at all.
If the outside is a work in progress then the inside is already rather splendid, set out with the theme of a wealthy merchant’s house from Xi-an, with one room representing the “theatre” and another the “tasting room” etc etc
The food on the menu is also inspired by that same city at the end (or is that the beginning?) of the Silk Road and offered up in small plates to be eaten in the same way as Cantonese dim sum, with sharing the order of the day.
Starter plates included “strange flavour” peanuts with the “strange” being the unmistakeable hint of Sichuan peppercorn, with its tell tale anaesthetic properties numbing the tongue. Rather nice and better than a plate of ribs, slow cooked in soy and sugar until soft, and served cold. The dryness was a desired result of the process, they claim, I remain unconvinced as I did by the deep frying of prawns which were oily and saved only by an excellent “fish fragrant” dipping sauce.
So far, so blah, but things perked up immediately with the arrival of a plate of cold buckwheat noodles with a sweet, sour sauce and tofu and a procession of Xi-an style dumplings, which reminded me of my visit there, where I was told of a local saying
“If you have visited Xi-an and not eaten dumplings, you have not visited Xi-an”
The ones at Ba Shan are delicate and elegantly presented and the quotie in particular, equivalent to the Japanese gyoza, were delicious with the tell tale crust on the underside that comes from adding water to the pan while frying.
In fact, all of the dumplings we tried were spot on and even the vegetarian versions deserved a few raised eyebrows for their soft casings and fresh innards of crunchy vegetables. Points removed for not draining them properly so they sat in a puddle in the bottom of the serving dishes, but they did not last long enough for that to matter.
Best of all, were two versions of roujiamo, otherwise known as Chinese Hamburger. A Xi-an classic and here at Ba Shan served in bite size versions with a filling of cumin-scented beef a nod to Xi-an spice trail heritage.
Finally, a dish not yet on the menu, but which we were urged to try, small rounds of puff pastry, stuffed with more gently spiced beef, which broke open to release a pleasing waft of steam as they had come fresh from being deep fried.
With tea and a charge for lovely service, the bill of £70 made us sit back a bit, but represents an attempt to work our way through the entire menu and the way these small plate meals always tend to build up to more than you anticipate. A sensible meal for two here should come to no more than £60, consistent with dim sum at one of the better places.
Ba Shan wont please the purists, of course, just as its sister restaurants fail to stifle dreary moans about lack of authenticity, but by my limited experience of the region it celebrates, it does a pretty decent job and, what’s more, it’s a nice place to have lunch, which, I have to say, in London, is becoming an increasingly rare thing and worth trumpeting, even if they owners don't feel that way yet about the existence of the restaurant itself