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Jan 3, 2010 11:39 AM

Empress of Sichuan, Chinatown, London

A new Sichuan place that replaced Kee Lung in Chinatown that opened yesterday. Looks like same management, different chef (a hotel chef from Sichuan).

"Lamp shadow" or "lamp shade" beef, refers to very finely sliced beef, so thin as to be translucent. See for more details about a superlative example of this dish. The version at Empress of Sichuan was a thinnish jerky-like preparation, that I wish could be even thinner, to offset the slightly tough and chewy qualities of the jerky-like beef. The slices were indeed somewhat translucent held up to the light, given the slightly fatty veins in the beef. Flavouring was very good, a combination of sweetness, smoky heat from dried chillis, a more citrusy herbal note from Sichuan peppercorns,and aromatic sesame seeds. The smaller pieces were particularly delicious, as they had absorbed more of the seasoning and more tender.

Dan dan noodles were not very exciting. A light broth lacking the spicy aromatics provided by what should be an oily dressing, and the minced pork was not sufficiently crisped, merely cooked.

Should be worth checking out in greater detail over the next few months, as new restaurants rarely hit their stride right away, and early reports are less representative than one about the mature restaurant.

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  1. Went here this past weekend with limster and some others, and we had a very nice meal. For me, some things were better than others.

    Cold appetizer platter was nice - spareribs, lamp shadow beef (described in limsters post), 1000yr egg, cucumber w/ garlic and something else too i think, but can't remember. The cucumber was quite nice, very crisp and cold.

    Fish hot pot w/ chilies - I thought this version was nice, but maybe not quite as good as the version I had at Chilli Cool in December - expensive here too (although not by that much). This version didn't have any tofu, only cabbage and lots of pieces of fish. Plenty of sichuan peppercorn which was good.

    Eggplant w/ ground pork - This was great, very nice flavor, not too oily. Would go back just for this.

    Chicken - Small pieces of chicken (on the bone) with lots of pickled chilies. Sadly I don't have the menu, so I don't know which it is. Perhaps someone else remembers? I liked this okay, I think others liked it more than me.

    Lamb - Can't remember which dish we got here either, someone else can hopefully fill in details.

    Mushrooms - Can't remember the variety (sorry, this might be my least informative review ever) - but I liked this. Sauteed with garlic and a bit of chili, nice flavor, generous serving and nice presentation with the thinly chopped mushroom strips.

    Did we also have something else?

    For dessert we had fried pumpkin cakes w/ sesame. These were okay, but couldn't taste much pumpkin flavor since it was overpowered by all the sesame seeds.

    Chrysanthemum tea - pots were refilled regularly, which was an example of how the service here was quite professional and good. A big notch above Chilli Cool, and I imagine a notch above many Chinatown places as well.

    A neighboring table got the crispy fish with sweet and sour sauce, which was HUGE and looked beautiful. Might want to try it next time.

    Currently there is a 20% discount on all items, for their grand opening, so this place is worth checking out soon. Staff were very friendly, reservation was easy to make for 6 of us on the phone, the space inside is nice, with lots of space downstairs too.

    Hopefully some of the other dining companions will chime in with their reports too.

    Dave MP

    13 Replies
    1. re: Dave MP

      The last cold app was poached chicken in chilli oil (aka drooling chicken).

      Lamb was a stewy rendition, flavoured with cumin, rather than the dry stir fried version. I really liked the flavour of the lamb.

      The mushrooms were tea tree mushrooms, which I think is possibliy more Yunnan than Sichuan (but Yunnan is next to Sichuan).

      1. re: limster

        Yunnan is famous for its mushrooms. They use them all over China (and indeed Asia).

        I once spent a night in a small town in Yunnan, right in mushroom picking season. The guethouse was overrun with mushrooms picked from the mountains around. The whole family was cleaning, preparing and drying them. The owner showed me one they export to Japan for LUDICROUS prices. By the by he also cooked me the best Chinese meal I've ever eaten.

      2. re: Dave MP

        Quick question about that crispy fish.

        When I was living in China I only ever had (or saw) sweet and sour sauce once, and that was in South Beauty in Shanghai, on an amazing crispy fish. Which I'm thinking is that same dish you saw. The thing is, one really standout feature of the dish I had in Shanghai was the fish was dropped into the oil in a bent shape so it stood with its face pressed against the serving dish, and its tail stuck up in the air. Did they have this there?

        Anyway, although I'm disappointed Keelung went (I really enjoyed it, I just think its a shame Jay Rayner killed it with his review), this place sounds really promising, can't wait to try it out.

        1. re: chief1284

          One superlative version of crispy fish in the Shanghai area is known as Squirrel Fish, because the fish puffs up into a bushy structure like a squirrel's tail upon deep frying due to the way it is cut. It's a demanding banquet style dish, and good versions are hard to find because of the intricate knifework involved. It's possible that that's what you saw. The crispy fish that we saw at Empress of Sichuan was merely scored, battered and deep fried, and thus not really the same dish.

          You might find this thread on Squirrel FIsh on the General Topics board useful.

          1. re: limster

            Yes I've had fish cut up that way a number of times. Its great, especially for eating with chopsticks. I can't actually remember whether the one I'm talking about had that unique style or not (I tend to think it did). But the vertical tail thing, I'm hoping wasn't a figment of my imagination, I'm pretty sure it wasn't though. After a quick flick through google images I saw this:


            See the bottom middle photo. It's not really like the one I had, but with a similarish effect. It's not a big deal, but a pretty cool gimmick.

            1. re: chief1284

              Cool pictures! That particular one looked more like a "normal" fried fish; I could be completely wrong, but suspect they maintain the shape by holding it in position with a pair curved wire meshes often used for retrieving and draining items from hot liquids (that's the technique used to shape fried taro nests).

              The crispy fish at Empress of Sichuan was simply still and flat.

              1. re: limster

                Yeah that one is just an ordinary fried fish, just pointed it out for the tail effect.

                And yeah I think your mesh theory is probably bang on.

                Oh also of note amongst those pictures is the top left. I love me some of that grass carp out there, what a great fish. I'm really not into freshwater fish in England, but Asian ones are fantastic. I wonder whether you can get them frozen...? I suspect so. Moreover, why not farm these in England? They're a great substitute for our tragically endangered saltwater fish.

                Have I found my calling? Maybe...

                1. re: chief1284

                  interesting question about raising carp in UK. It seems like it's hard to do because of climate....but it's apparently being done:

                  1. re: Dave MP

                    Bar Shu were frying their fish arcing in this way a couple of years ago. It was clever, but I'm always slightly unerved by presentation which is more like taxidermy than anything else, seems slightly morbid, though in this case the jumping fish motif is charmingly lyrical. Whole grinning pigs chomping apples though...
                    Is the Empress the same Leoung team? Or has it changed owners? I really liked Keelung, and I'm very sad it didn't take off, though everytime I visited it was rammed. Thanks for the report regardless, may have to give it a whirl sometime soon.

                    1. re: skut

                      Owners the same at Empress, but different chef. Not sure about the rest of the kitchen.

                      1. re: limster

                        Thanks limster. As I said, it's a shame that they changed, as London has in the last five years found itself with a healthy compliment of decent szechuan restaurants, and I really liked a lot of the menu at Keelung. Oh well, sounds very good,

                        1. re: skut

                          I got to Empress of Sichuan on Saturday night and I really enjoyed the food. We didn't order much, but the things we had were good. The cold spare ribs with sesame and cumin were tasty - pretty small but the flavour was very good. The crunchy vegetables in spicy sauce were great. A delicate taste, but a nice punch of chilli heat coming through. I'm not sure what vegetable they were, and the waitress couldn't tell me. They were long, green crunchy strands of vegetable - definitely not any type of green bean. I thought they might be some type of gourd.

                          We then had the spicy fish hot pot with chillies. I really really liked this. It was smaller, and more expensive than what you would get at Chilli Cool (which I also really like), but I thought there was a good balance of flavours, a liberal dousing of Sichuan pepper, and the fish was perfectly cooked.

                          it is more expensive than some of the other Sichuan places in town, but I would definitely go back. It is also more fancy than most other places - I don't think anything had changed decor-wise, since when I went when it was still Keelung last summer.

          2. re: chief1284

            Interesting to revisit this old thread, as Empress of Sichuan now do serve a ju2 hua1 yu2 aka chrysanthemum fish on their winter/spring specials menu -- fillets of fish cut with elegant knifework resulting in little strips all still attached and puffing out to resemble the petals of a chrysanthemum flower. Fairly good deep frying -- the batter light and golden brown, and no trace of any greasy flavour. Would have prefer to have it be even more crunchy though, and I think the fish might have been frozen, the flavour a bit muddy. The sweet and sour sauce is solid, dotted with pinenuts and lots of finely julienned green onion (but just the white stems), to contrast the sweet and sour intensity, and bring a bit of lightness against the fried fish. Not bad, but not great.