“ Address: 24 Romilly Street / London W1D 5AH / Tel: 0207 287 3266 „
Soho has no shortage of restaurants, but obviously not all of them will suit everyone. On the evening of Gay Pride, the Moroccan one we made a beeline for had music blaring out at a deafening level, both inside and out. The European one just didn't look appealing. Ba Shu, a Chinese place, did attract us until we saw the prices on the menu. Over the road, Ba Shan, its little sister, had reasonable prices, but we found it strange that Chairman Mao was pictured so predominantly on their menu. Perhaps they only welcomed Communist customers! Then I noticed on the door that it had recommendations from both the Michelin Guide and the Time Out restaurant guide. We decided it was worth a try.
It was a few minutes after 6pm and we were told there was a table available for the three of us, but we would have to vacate it by 7.30pm. That sounded fine, and we were lead through to one of the small seating areas. The interior is in dark wood but the windows are large so the place does not seem gloomy. There are decorative Chinese lanterns, beautifully carved wooden hangings, one or two plants and yes, a picture of Chairman Mao. Traditional Chinese music was playing, but it was almost impossible to hear as the DJs for the Gay Pride street party were turning up the volume on all sides.
Our waitress handed us Ba Shan's large, laminated menus. Ba Shan serves Hunanese cuisine, which I had not come across before. Coloured photographs are dotted throughout the menu to give you an idea of what to expect. The restaurant offers a great variety of small dishes; I understand that the name Ba Shan means "small eats". Presumably you could choose one as a starter, or you could order an assortment of them and have a dim sum or tapas-style meal. We decided, however, to skip to the mains. Ba Shan certainly offers some unusual choices, from pigs' trotters to ducks' tongues. It also has the more usual variations on beef, pork, chicken, fish fillets, king prawns and scallops. Mushrooms are referred to as fungus, which did sound a little off-putting. Vegetarians could choose between various types of bean curd. Dumplings, plain rice and noodles are offered as side dishes.
The wines on offer all seemed to be quite pricey, so we decided to content ourselves with fruit juice. I ordered strawberry as did my son, and his partner went for lychee. These were served with plenty of crushed ice. When it came to food, the three of us felt we wanted to play it safe, and we all turned back to the double page of chicken dishes. It seemed a good idea to order three different mains and share them. We picked Gung-bo chicken and peanuts, General Tso's chicken, and chicken with black beans and garlic, each at £8.90. We also ordered two portions of plain rice at £1.80 each, and some dumplings stuffed with egg and Chinese chives at around £6.
It wasn't long at all before the waitress brought our food. The two portions of rice came together in a large white bowl. The other dishes were presented either in deep ceramic bowls or on china plates. Tiny white bowls are already sitting on small white plates when you are shown to your table, and so you serve yourself small amounts of food at a time. The rice was a very good consistency. I tried the chicken with black beans and garlic first and was surprised how fiery it was. There were generous amounts of hot chilli pepper slices, and we had to avoid eating most of these. The Gung-bo chicken and peanuts was dotted with purple pepper slices that were also very hot. Slices of sweet red peppers in General Tso's chicken were a welcome relief, but there were a few hot chilli peppers in there too. The chicken in all the dishes was very tender and well cooked, and we all enjoyed the combination of chicken and peanuts in the Gung-bo dish. I noticed a fragrant flavour at times in that particular dish. We polished off the dumplings too; they didn't look interesting enough for a photo, but the chives were delicious and the blandness of the egg contrasted well with the spicy, hot main dishes.
I had only noticed two choices for dessert on the menu; one was fruit and I think the other was based on rice, but it certainly didn't sound appetising to me. In any case we had to vacate our table and hadn't intended to have a dessert. We asked for the bill, which came to just over £52. I don't know why I didn't look at it in detail, but thinking about it later it seemed to me that they may have included a service charge in that amount. We gave them a tip anyway; the service was very polite and efficient, as it usually is in Chinese restaurants.
The disabled toilet on the ground floor also serves as the ladies', so there is just the one. I was surprised to find a carved wooden panel and several delightful little Chinese paintings in there. It was spotlessly clean and well supplied with toilet tissue and liquid handwash. It is situated just beyond the bar, to the other side of which is another dining area. I did also see people being shown to the basement and upstairs, so I assume there is seating on those levels too. The gents' toilet is upstairs and my son's partner had no complaints to make about it.
Our waitress bade us a friendly farewell as we left. I felt we had probably chosen the best restaurant from those we had seen in the area. As far as Chinese restaurants go, I have to admit I am spoilt as I live about five minutes' walk from a particularly good one in Southsea, so others often pale in comparison. Ba Shan's food was very good but not outstanding. If you like chilli peppers, it would be right up your street; if not, be careful what you order. It does have an unusual and interesting menu, and perhaps we should have been a little braver and tried a dish that was different from anything we have had before. Prices were certainly reasonable and I could not fault the service. If you are in Soho, love Chinese food and don't want to break the bank, Ba Shan is worth a visit.
Opening hours: Monday - Thursday, and Sunday: 12 noon - 11pm; Friday and Saturday: 12 noon - 11.30pm.
24 Romilly Street
Nearest tube: Leicester Square
Tel. 020 7287 3266