Monday, 14 December 2009

Dinner @ Red 'N' Hot (Sichuan), London

I hadn't planned on going to Red 'N' Hot but the hectic build-up to Christmas can alter your plans at the last minute. We had intended to try the 'leave it to us' option at Haozhan but Mr Wine was running late due to work and my day at the office wasn't that great either. I then made the mistake of trying to do some Christmas shopping before meeting Mr Wine.

Anyway, by the time we met up at 8.30, we were both a bit frazzled and in the mood for less sophisticated fare. Having decided against old school Cantonese, we plumped for this Sichuan restaurant on Charing Cross Road. First impressions were positive with a predominantly Chinese clientele enjoying their food in a smart contemporary dining room.

Most parties went for the huo guo – Sichuan hotpot cooked at the table – so much so that the front door had to be kept open for ventilation (although this didn’t stop the smoke alarms going off !). On another day, we might have gone for this but after a tough day at the office, we were happy to go a la carte.

The menus were fully bilingual with selected pictures and I began to order in my wobbly Mandarin but as it turned out the lingua franca of the wait staff was Cantonese ! To the relief of all concerned, I switched to Cantonese to make it clear that we were familiar with Sichuan food and that we could handle the heat.

Although listed as an appetiser, the kou shui ji or mouthwatering Sichuan chicken with a lip tingling spicy sauce (£7.80) came with the mains. This insipid cold starter was the most disappointing dish and wasn't remotely lip tingling - the overriding flavour being of sesame.

One of my Sichuan faves is shui zhu niu rou which is called sliced beef Sichuan style lavishly topped with chilli and Sichuan pepper (£8.80) here. Unfortunately, they bought out the rou pian or sliced pork version, if we weren't so frazzled I would have insisted on actually getting the beef but we kept the pork.

This dish was served as you'd expect - see photo below - although the pork was a tad chewy and the beef would have been a more tender option. The spice level was less than Chilli Cool and Mr Wine reckoned it was on a par with Bar Shu i.e. although far from lacking heat it could have been spicier.

The other main was quick fried fish slices & vegetables (£15.80). I'm not sure what the fish was but this generous portion was perfectly cooked. It wasn't meant to be spicy and we intentionally ordered this as a contrast to the spicier dishes.

As well as steamed rice, sides of water spinach with garlic (£7.80), dan dan noodles (£3.80) and minced pork dumplings with chilli oil (£4.80) were ordered. These were all competently rendered; especially the dumplings which had a home-made feel. Mind you, the chilli oil dressing could've been zingier as could the dan dan noodles.

Neither of us were in the mood for wine and with a couple of beers each, the bill was £35/head including service. However, I did over order for the two of us and the portions were very generous - I ended up taking home the leftover pork and chicken. Analysing our order, I reckon it wouldn't have cost much more in total for a party of four – somewhere in the region of £25/head i.e. pricier than Chilli Cool but cheaper than Bar Shu.

Although there was a cock-up over the beef and the drinks took their time in arriving, the service was above average. I guess this was due to the waiters not being your stereotypical surly-bollocks – banter, charm and good humour are rare qualities in Chinatown so we could forgive any minor lapses.

One issue did gnaw away though and that was the food could've been spicier especially as I had expressly told them that we could handle the heat. However, all became clear when I analysed the bill at home – they have a profiling system detailing 'customer type' and 'spicy hot degree' on the header of the bill

For the record, we were profiled as 'Chinese' customers despite Mr Wine being clearly English (perhaps they took into account his spoken Mandarin, which is far better than mine). Unlike customer type, the 'spicy hot degree' profile was written only in Chinese – we were deemed to be able to handle 'zhong la' or medium heat.

My guess is that if you were profiled as 'English' then you'd be 'xiao la' - literally little heat. This is a bit ironic a most English people I know have a far higher tolerance of heat than the Chinese, especially the Cantonese who by and large are chilli-shy.

Before anyone gets indignant, I am Cantonese and whilst I like my heat, it'd be fair to say that I'm in the minority. My initial reaction was one of annoyance but I did see the funny side later on. That said it'd be better if they dispensed with the profiling and went for 'da la' or big heat as the default.

Verdict: Although the mouthwatering chicken came close, there were no real shockers. Whilst Chilli Cool remains my favourite Sichuan place in London, I'd recommend Red 'N' Hot if you were out and about in the West End. Just remember to insist on 'da la' if you like your heat.

Other Stuff: Red 'N' Hot also has branches in the respective Chinatowns of Birmingham and Manchester.

Red 'n' Hot on Urbanspoon

Update July 2010 - Red 'N' Hot have taken over Snazz Sichuan near Euston. A mini-review can be found on Off The Blog 3

8 comments:

  1. I have wanted to visit Red N' Hot to have the Sichuan hot pot, but a friend of mine told me that unless you're with a Chinese person they really tone it down far too much and your post confirms that. I'm half Chinese but most waiters don't see that, so I'm sure I'd be profiled as a gweilo.

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  2. I wonder what a Brazilian would be classified as...I hope "da la" as I like my Sichuanese food quite hot! I've never been to Chilli Cool so I will definitely be trying that. Thanks!

    Luiz @ The London Foodie

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  3. Good advice on specifying the "la" level next time I'm at Chili Cool.

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  4. It is frustrating that Sichuan places are profiling diners and dumbing-down flavours. The whole situation is ludicrous as most people that choose Sichuan want full-on fire !

    Lizzie - I reckon if you ask to be classed as Chinese and for the spiciness to be 'da la' or 'dai lat' in Cantonese then you'll be fine at Red 'N' Hot.

    LF - I'm afraid unless you look obviously Chinese, you will be classed as a 'gweilo'.

    A-in-L - I'm still surprised that Chilli Cool wasn't spicy enough. Let me know how you get on after you ask them to ramp up the 'la' level!

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  5. I was there last night and the experience can only be summarised with one word: disappointing.

    The 水 煮 牛 肉 -which they bill as their 'signature dish'- was rather oily with chewy beef, three -maybe four- forlorn Sichuan peppercorns and no heat at all in spite of being marked withe four chillies in their menu [I'm now wondering if that is an indication of how spicy the dish is or of the total amount of chillies you'll actually find in it...]

    As it happens, our aubergine with green and red pepper starter was hotter and spicier than the beef, in spite of not having any "chilli warning' on the menu...

    I managed to convince the waiter to 'class' us as 中国 even if we're caucasian and don't speak any Mandarin, so we got the medium [zhong, 中] spicy hot degree. However this doesn't mean anything since the whole operation has been clearly toned and dumbed down as they are targeting another segment of '中国' clients, one that's happy with a 'milder' approach.

    Considering how poor a job they did with their 'signature dish' I doubt I be going back to Hot n' Spice. That area is packed with much better options.

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  6. Jordi - welcome! A shame about your meal at Red N Hot. I haven't been back to this branch since this review. If in Chinatown, you'd be better off going to Empress of Sichuan.

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  7. Heya - just been reading and enjoying your blog.

    I work just up the road from this restaurant and I must have been 10 plus times. I really love Sichuan food and can handle a lot of spice - I got to My Old Place a lot too, but the service there can grind you down a bit. I speak no Cantonese/Mandarin and I get frustrated in My Old Place by trying to order things and them being completely unhelpful. How refreshing this place is - the guy who is usually my waiter is awesome - he understands I really like the cuisine and is really friendly. He recommends things and you can just say - 'I like things really spicy' . I'm surprised by the mix up you had and the disappointing chicken. I've never had any problems here.

    Lunch here is also cheap as chips, and you get a lovely big bowl of noodles.

    I'm yet to try the nearby Empress of Sichuan as it is a lot more expensive - I ate at Bar Shu once with my dad and enjoyed it - but not as much as Red Hot.

    Has anyone tried the 'Sichuan Restaurant' that is also on Charing Cross Road. It is upstairs (above a chinese shop) and is really just called 'Sichuan Restaurant'. Intriguing!

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  8. Frank - welcome! I'm glad you like the blog. I accept I may have caught Red N Hot on a bad day but I'm a firm Empress of Sichuan fan and I go there for my spice-fix when I'm in Chinatown. Yes - it is a bit pricier than Red N Hot but I don't think it's unreasonable and it's cheaper than Bar Shu.

    I've yet to try the simply named 'Sichuan Restuarant' and truth be told, my list of places to visit is frankly ridiculously long! But thanks for the tip!

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