Friday, 14 June 2013

A Quick Look at Baiwei, Chinatown

If I had to pick a cookbook that I refer back to time and time again, it would be Sichuan Cookery by Fuchsia Dunlop. The pages of my copy are well-used, splattered with oil and various bits of debris, and while I also loved Every Grain of Rice, Sichuan Cookery is an altogether more serious tome. Less pictures and more in-depth, it encouraged me to explore Sichuan cuisine further. Dunlop herself has a fascinating background as the first Westerner to train as a chef at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, China, so she knows her stuff. 

Baiwei is a new restaurant on Little Newport Street and Dunlop consulted on the menu. Originally, it was controversially named 'Big Leap Forward' (by its Chinese owner, Dunlop claimed) but they've now decided upon Baiwei - Chinese for 'a hundred flavours'. When we visited for lunch I was surprised by the interior - I had expected something sleeker like Dunlop's other consultations, Ba Shan and Bar Shu. Instead, the room was spartan save for some Maoist propaganda decorations. Our table on the ground floor faced the dumbwaiter, but the star table appears to be the one in this photo, looking out onto the street. Other diners were directed upstairs, though I didn't think to poke my head in to have a look around. 

The menu is lengthy, divided into cold dishes and hot. Pictures accompany descriptions to give a better idea of presentation and portion size. Once we'd ordered, the dishes came quickly; we kicked off with cold sliver salad. Surprisingly wide chewy noodles were mixed in with slivered vegetables and pork in a vinegary, sesame-spiked dressing. Incredibly garlicky, incredibly moreish, though I do wish it was a touch spicier. 

We couldn't resist the cold aubergine dish, mainly because it was served with preserved egg (century egg). This came mixed well into the dish, the grey/brown translucent egg whites appearing every other mouthful. Eaten with some hot rice, this dish was really great. 

Lamb with roasted rice (made by steaming the meat and ground rice together in a bowl) didn't look entirely appealing on the plate being the big brown cluster of meat it was. Looks aside, it packed some serious flavour and the meat was chop-stick tender, though again while we could see the chilli flecks, it was lacking in any spiciness. 

Dan dan noodles with beef was the only dish that had any chilli-heat to speak of, with a slight tingle of Sichuan peppercorns on the tongue. The noodles were appropriately chewy. Once mixed together, the spicy sesame dressing made this a rich and delicious bowl of noodles definitely made for sharing.

The beef and coriander wontons 'in a rich beef broth' was the only dish that disappointed and I wouldn't order it again. Though the beef and coriander filling was nice enough, the broth was a bit unpleasant, a bit too reminiscent of dishwater for my liking. 

Baiwei had some really interesting dishes on the menu that I'd love to go back to try - indeed, the table next to us ordered a big dish served with flat-bread-like pancakes that looked pretty special. I'm slightly confused by the tameness of the dishes; at least two of the things we ordered had a big red chilli next the to menu listing, but it all seemed very mild to us. One can only hope it's not the oft-typical dumbing down of dishes for the Westerners. 

Their pricing seems a little off too - potstickers were listed on the menu at £6.90, while the dan dan noodles at their considerable size were £4.90. Similarly our lamb dish was at £6.90, though the gong bao tofu £8.90 - same with the 'pressed tofu and vegetable stir-fry' - it seems odd to me that vegetarian / vegetable dishes are more expensive. As it was, we paid £20 a head with (very good and polite) service for 5 dishes, 1 shared rice and a soft drink each. Pretty good value for the standard of food we had, though definitely at the higher end of what one would usually pay in Chinatown. 


8 Little Newport Street


Mr Noodles said...

Hopefully it's a case of teething problems but I do hate it when restaurants (of any type) profile their clientele. I'm also very glad that the name has changed!

meemalee said...

Cold sliver salad - is that Liang Pi?

Hollow Legs said...

Mr Noodles - as am I! Am hoping to visit again soon so time will tell.

Meemalee - ah yes, I guess so.

Erik said...

I went over the weekend. It's interesting that they renamed the place Baiwei but the Chinese sign and menus still say 'Big Leap Forward'.
The menu seems to be mainly northern Chinese. Try the mustard chicken and shredded sliced tofu with minced pork in chilli sauce next time. Both great.

Jamie said...

I went a couple of week ago and found the whole experience rather strange. The interior wasn't what i expected either but whatever, as long as the food was good.

Everything we tried was pretty bland, a complete lack of chilli throughout, and the red braised pork i make much better myself (why i ordered this i don't know..).
Tea was from a tea bag, brought to us in the cup and the whole thing was made weirder by being watched by an army of staff - we were the only people in the place.

pricing i couldn't understand either, veg dishes were all really expensive.

SteveF said...

Might just be nostalgia or a change in my taste buds but it feels as though places like Bar Shu and Chilli Cool have lost a bit of spiciness in recently times.

Shu Han said...

Hmmm. I've heard so many mixed reviews about Baiwei! Maybe it's the choice of dishes. I still want to make it down though.. Thought the old name was a joke, was pretty shocked when I realised it's real, glad they changed it!

jacknharris said...

Skip the dishes - head straight to the mao cai, kind of like a Hotpot except that you don't cook the ingredients yourself. It is huge and can more than feed two hungry people.