In April 2011 I flew to New York for a friend’s wedding. On my way to the airport a guy at Belsize Park station noticed my suitcase and asked if I was travelling by air. ‘Yes’. ‘Check your flight, a volcano’s erupted’. I thought he was mental. I got the airport and everything was fine. It wasn’t until I was sitting in the departure lounge and saw a big screen with images of a volcano spewing black ash into the air, that I realised he was right. My flight was the fourth to last to leave Heathrow before they shut UK airspace. Feeling very lucky I landed in New York, met up with a friend who was in America anyway, and had a marvellous time at the wedding. The next morning, battling a rather heavy hangover, I woke to a text from Virgin Airlines saying my flight back the next day had been cancelled. I panicked. My friend had an internal US flight that afternoon, leaving me friendless in the city. Or rather I would have been if I hadn’t picked up the phone numbers of two other guests at the wedding who seemed fun. We arranged to meet for supper that night, they brought along another girl who was staying at their hostel, and the New York Stranded Society (NYSS) was born. Over the next four nights we took the ‘well we’re here now, let’s make the most of it’ attitude, drank almost undrinkably strong cocktails from teacups, and ate fish tacos that we swore changed our lives. Ever since we’ve met up every couple of months for dinner. It is however getting increasingly difficult to get us all in the same place at the same time, so on Wednesday night just three of us went out.
Ever since reading the opening chapter of Giles Coren’s How to Eat Out last month, I’ve had an itch that only Chinese food will scratch. I therefore, rather self-servingly, suggested we met at Ba Shan in Soho. China has an incredibly diverse cuisine, yet most of the ‘Chinese’ food we eat is actually Cantonese, one of eight regional cuisines. Ba Shan showcases Huanan cooking which is heavy on the heat. I like spice, but I also like being able to feel my lips and tongue after eating. When we arrived at 7.30 we were led downstairs to a small room with six or so tables in it. I quickly became aware of one of my biggest restaurant gripes – the room was too quiet. I hate knowing that other guests can hear what we are saying, and having to self-edit in case sensitive ears are offended by our conversation. The other tables were taken up by couples who all seemed to posses the uncanny ability to converse without actually making any noise.
My two friends ordered beers, and I some sort of lychee drink. I am OBSESSED with lychees and unable to order anything else if they are offered in any form. The food menu comes with rather unappetising photographs of each dish alongside the descriptions. It is rather overwhelming and it took us a while, and a few deep breaths, to decide what to have. We shared two starters between us; aubergines pounded with sesame, garlic and chili (£6.90), and chopped choy sam with mushrooms (£5.90). The fresh clean heat from the green vegetable was a nice contrast to the silky smooth aubergine. I would definitely recommend both dishes.
My non-veggie friend and I then divided two mains and a bowl of sticky rice, while my veggie friend tucked into a tofu dish. The farmhouse stir-fired pork with green peppers (£7.90) was probably the hottest dish we ate, but with plenty of rice, was definitely bearable. The pork was rather chewy though and the only real flavour in the thin sauce came from the chili. General Tso’s chicken (£7.90) felt more like a Cantonese dish, with little nuggets of fried meat served in a sticky sweet sauce with plenty of grilled onions and peppers. It was a bit greasy but had that combination of sweetness and hotness that I think makes Chinese food so addictive.
The service throughout was, well, Chinese – indifferent at best, rude at worst. At under £20 a head it was pretty good value given how much we ate, although I’m not convinced the food was good enough to warrant going back to such an uncomfortably quiet restaurant. I like restaurants to feel fun and this just wasn’t. I am keen to try other Chinese places though, so if you have any recommendations I would love to hear them!