I had high expectations of Bar Shu, given some slavering reviews in the London food press. Certainly London could so with a genuine Sichuan restaurant as a change from the endless Cantonese places, and I have a great fondness for spicy food. The premises have the obligatory wooden flooring and bare tables, with a rather jumbled set of Chinese ornaments (red lanterns, a rather nice wooden screen). The menu is unusual, to say the least; it shows pictures of all the dishes (something which somehow suggest tacky tourist spot yet seems to me quite a sensible thing with a cuisine that may be unfamiliar) and yet describes them in a ludicrously small font that even my eagle-eyed (20 20 vision) wife had trouble reading.
Certainly the menu appeared real enough. I have eaten authentic Sichuan food in China and also in an unlikely setting in the US, so I have at least some idea what it is supposed to taste like. What it was not supposed to taste like is the "numbing and hot dried beef", which is the exact dish I had eaten two weeks before at a proper Sichuan restaurant in the US. The prior version I had eaten had tender dried beef liberally served with red chillis and Sichuan peppercorns, the beef tender and the spicing lively. The version at Bar Shu had strips of beef that were like leather (looking nothing like the attractive picture on the menu), with some vague chilli heat. These were so chewy as to be essentially inedible (8/20), and having just had the same dish two weeks before done properly I don’t want to hear that "ah, this is the proper way that it should be", which is the guff I got from our remarkably stroppy waiter when I left the dish.
Hot and sour soup style was an oddly bland version of the dish which had a watery stock (10/20). Better was a dish of prawns with some Sichuan peppercorns, celery and cashew nuts, where the prawns were cooked fine though there was a slight greasiness to the dish (11/20). Sea bass was liberally doused with red chillies and too much oil (see picture), though the fish was cooked through nicely (12/20). Steamed gai lan were not in the league of (say) Royal China but were tender enough (12/20). I didn’t try the numerous offal dishes, though I can only hope they tasted better than the beef.
The evening was not helped by some of the rudest service I have encountered for years. Our waiter badgered us to order moments after presenting the menu ("you need more time, maybe a few more seconds") and then taking the order down wrongly ("you said two portions, not one; now I have to write it all down again"). He then brought us sparkling water instead of the still we had ordered, and after returning with the correct one said "you sure you have made up your mind now?". This was all before arguing that the piece of leather served up as a starter was authentic ("ah, we have big consultant to tell us how to make dishes; what do you know"). Yes, I am sure Fuschia Dunlop knows vastly more about Sichuan cooking than I do, but she was not out there cooking tonight. I think I have a right to an opinion about when something is inedible; here is a clue – when you cannot cut through a piece of beef and can barely bite through it, it may not have been cooked optimally, nor have started out as a really great piece of meat to begin with. The other waitress we encountered was fine, so I will assume that we were just unlucky with our waiter, but he really ticked me off.
The other criticism I have is the value for money: we did not order that much (one starter, soup, two main courses, a vegetable, rice, two beers and water) and the bill was still £47 each. Main courses at £22 are something you associate more with high end French food, where ingredients are genuinely costly and some effort goes into the presentation. Objectively I can give it a 11/20 if I try and erase the beef from my memory, but I certainly didn’t feel endeared to the place.