Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Empress of Sichuan review - a serving of chili oil

Address: 6 Lisle Street,
London WC2H 7BG
Tel: 020 7734 8128
Nearest Tube station: Leicester Square

Ratings (out of 5 *)
Price: below £20 pp
Service charge: 10%
Taste: ***
Service: ****
Ambience: ***
Suitable for: a family dinner or large groups
and those who are fine with chili
We were walking along Lisle Road one day on our way to watch Bedroom Farce last weekend when we noticed that KeeLung was no longer in operation. In its place was a Sichuan restaurant with a flashy name – Empress of Sichuan (Er-Mei Yi Pai, no less).

Mount Er-Mei, a dominating geographical feature in China’s Sichuan province, was one of the favourite backdrops for countless Chinese martial arts novels. By calling itself “Er-Mei Yi Pai”, Sichuan Empress has effectively counted itself as the best in Sichuan. With that in mind, we stepped right in for a simple pre-theatre dinner.


Frankly, I was surprised that the facade and interior décor remained pretty much the same compared to KeeLung. Even the huge picture of KeeLung Market remained in the main dinner area (you can’t miss it). While we were dining in KeeLung, I used to wonder where did all those vintage prints of artists come from. Well, looking at it, they might be cast offs from previous occupants.

The place was packed when we were there. Granted that it was a Saturday evening but still. We were told that that the table allocated to us had to be vacated at 7.30pm, which we have no problem with. In fact, we stayed right till 7.30pm before dashing off to Duke of York’s Theatre.

Anyway, the last thing we want was to doze off in the theatre later so we opted for a simple fare – bear paw tofu (xiong zhang tou fu), Sichuan chicken (quan shui ji) and dan dan noodles.


Rest assured that the bear paw tofu (£8.50) contained no traces of the endangered animal though I wasn’t so sure about the original dish. This one was simply stir fried pork with thin triangular slices of fried tofu and black fungus. Like most Sichuan dishes, bear paw tofu came immersed in a wide bowl of chili oil. The pork cubes were well seasoned though I thought they could go a bit easy on the starch. I thought that the gravy went well with my bowl of steamed rice.


The Sichuan chicken (£13), in my opinion, was a bit overpriced and underwhelming. It was essentially a large bowl of chili oil with chicken chunks (stir fried). Perhaps it was the spice used but I was a bit puzzled as to how this dish could have caused so much more.


The dan dan noodles (£4.80) was quite good really. The noodles reminded us of the better quality instant noodles, which we recognized instantly as a comfort food. All in all, the mild chili that went into the broth was just about right. But as the portion is a bit small, I would advise against sharing.


We still had some time after clearing the table and we decided to go for some sticky rice balls (tang yuan) for desserts. The rice balls (£4) came with some small coloured balls made of tapioca flour, which was a key ingredient for the popular Taiwanese bubbled tea (pao pao cha). I thought that its chewy texture complemented the black sesame filled rice balls. One recommendation here, instead of gobbling down the entire rice ball at one go (which is what I normally do), take a bite at it and take a sip of the filling within before shoveling the rest in.


Service was way more attentive than the usual Chinese restaurant. Even though we were seated in a secluded corner, the staff always made it a point to refill our tea every so often. Interestingly, even the bill included a 10% service charge, I was given an option of adding a gratuity when keying in my pin. Empress of Sichuan even inherited the same system as KeeLung in that aspect.

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Tom said...

Interested to read another review of this place. One person seems to love them, one person seems to think they are ok. There is obviously a slightly inconsistent kitchen out back but glad you had a good(ish) meal there.


C K said...

I think it's really what you order and whether you're fond of Sichuan cuisine to begin with. Then again, isn't that true for all eating places? :)