15 Leigh street, London, WC1H 9EW 020 7383 3135 www.chillicool.com
I’ve read about it, heard people raving about it, even attempted to cook it. But I had never, till now, really tasted authentic Szechuan food. The cuisine du jour about four years ago when, with opening of Bar Shu, a chilli-fevered enthuiasm for it swept London’s food critics.
And so, when the call came through from foodie central (well, from Meemalee, which is pretty much the same thing) I grabbed my gear and headed to Chilli Cool in Bloomsbury to get my socks – I hoped – well and truly blown off.
Crucial to the whole experience was going in gang-style with seven other ravenous bellies. This meant we could sample a decent spread and we ended up enthusiastically chomping our way nine dishes and rice. Much respect to Meemalee who took control and weilded the conductors baton with relish, ordering a plethora of exciting plates.
And out they came, one after the other, veiled in a chilli laced fog of inviting aromas. Thank goodness someone (thanks again Meemalee) kept track of what was what, because soon after my first bite I sank into a chilli induced trance as flavours I didn’t even know existed befuddled my poor brain.
First out of the kitchen was sliced Pigs ear in sesame sauce, followed in quick succession by beef and ox tripe in chilli sauce, sea fragrant aubergine, hot and chilli crispy pork intestine, sea spicy shredded pork, sliced beef Szechuan style lavishly topped with chilli & Szechuan pepper, stir-fried pork and green beans, mini-lamb skewers fried with chilli & chilli powder, and stewed beef tendon.
I won’t even try to go through all nine dishes individually, because there isn’t space. And because the whole experience blended into a whirlwind of new tastes and textures as I dug into one plate then another eager to pile as much into my gob as I could.
It was like feeding burgers to a starving man, like my first taste of steak for a decade when I was 21, I just couldn’t get enough. The chilli heat was as intense as anything I’ve eaten on four continents (and I’m not shy about heat) while the Szechuan peppercorn induced numbness added whole new layers of fun to the experience.
Highlights for me were the pigs ear, which came cold with helluva chilli kick that rose up from the back of your throat after your first nutty bite. It was chewy, porky, hot and cold at the same time. Wow.
Crispy pork intestine was full of texture and flavour, the crispy deep-fried exterior giving way with a crunch to the meltingly porky morsel inside. The delicate flavour somehow stood up to the heat and it was not nearly as offally as I imagined.
The beef tendon was completely new to me and it wibbled and wobbled in my chopsticks like a giant beefy jelly baby. It was incredibly satisfying to eat and, in comparison to the rest of the red hot and numbing dishes, was a gentle interlude.
But for me, king of the table and as luxurious as a Raja’s palace, was the sea fragrant aubergine. So called because it’s made with the same spices Szechuan cooks use for fish. It was heavenly. There was an entrancing balance of strong flavours. Eating it was like having your mouth massaged by the gentlest of tender hands. Hands covered in chilli.
Once the smooth rich fleshy aubergine slices had been mopped up, it was all I could do not to thrust my face into the oil and slurp it up. I made do with pouring it over my rice (and liberally down my shirt).
I could go on and on about every mouthful, but you get the picture. If like me you are new to the cuisine this is a great place for an intro. Don’e be frightened by the offal, dive in and try it out. Order liberally and widely and be prepared for an assault on the senses.
Oh yes, make sure you don’t wear a white shirt. That’s very important. Mine looked like I had executed some messy gangland hit by the end. Not that I cared. I was replete with a full belly and the fading whiskey warmth of a lot of chilli.
Finally, the whole lot, with wine came to £20 a head. Twenty quid. An absolute bargain for the experience.