Baiwei (London)

Our first meal in London, shortly after arrival, was lunch at a Sichuan restaurant just a few steps from our flat in Westminster. We ate there twice. This is not that restaurant (and nor was Chilli Cool). I plan on making my review of that restaurant the last of my London food reviews (because after all we ate there first). This is a review of a Sichuan meal eaten almost at the very end of our trip, at Baiwei in Chinatown. It’s one of a few outposts of the Barshu group (the eponymous Barshu, Ba Shan and Baozi Inn are the others); it opened in 2013 and apparently Fuchsia Dunlop was a consultant on the menu. We were very disappointed to have this be one of our final meals in London, but not because we didn’t enjoy it. On the contrary, we liked it very much—it was the best of the Sichuan meals we ate—and wished we’d gone there much earlier so we could have gone back and sampled more of the menu. Ah well. 

The first thing you will notice when you enter Baiwei is that it is not a restaurant for people who cannot climb or have difficulty climbing stairs. The restaurant comprises tiny dining rooms spread over a number of floors, and if I’m remembering correctly, you have to go up a few stairs for even the ground floor room where we were seated. The next thing that you will notice is the kitschy decor. This may or may not be the hipster Chinese restaurant version of the Indian restaurant phenomenon I’ve previously critiqued, but it’s more than a little odd in a very different way: much of it, you see, seems to involve communist propaganda from the Mao era. Now I’m sure it’s meant ironically—and I think I’ve read that this is hipsterish trend in China too—but there’s something a little discomfiting about eating in a restaurant that’s plastered with the face and maxims of a man whose policies resulted in the deaths by starvation of many millions of Chinese people. In fact, the restaurant apparently launched with the name Great Leap Forward before being renamed Baiwei (which apparently means “hundred flavours”).

I’ve no idea whether Dunlop had anything to do with the design or the initial name—or for that matter with the good decision to change the name—but the menu will be familiar to those who’ve read her classic book on Sichuan Food (Land of Plenty). Or maybe the better way to put that is to say that if you have the book and and wonder what the classic renditions of many of those dishes look and taste like, then eating at Baiwei is a good way to find that out (and if you don’t have the book, the menu has lots of pictures). Everything we ate was very good. Details are in the captions to the slideshow below. Scroll down for thoughts on service, value etc.

All of this came to £51 before tip, which is a really good value in London—the portion sizes were generous and we took a decent amount of food home (and paid 50p for each takeout container). Service was fine but given the small dining rooms there’s a certain amount of unavoidable hovering. We were there for an early lunch on a Sunday, by the way, and it was not hard to get a table. I’m not sure what the story is in the evenings, especially on the weekend, and if you’re going in a group of more than four it’s probably a good idea to call well in advance.

If you’re visiting London from Los Angeles or even New York then eating at Baiwei should not be on your agenda (I don’t know what the story would be with Barshu, which is the most upscale member of the group). But if you’re visiting from a city that does not have strong (or any) Sichuan options this is an excellent place to take the measure of classic Sichuan food that has not been toned down much if at all. If we lived in London we’d go often (and I rate it well above Chilli Cool).

Coming up soon: a couple of posts on the Bowmore distillery and another on eating on Skye. The next London review will be of another Malaysian place in Chinatown.

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