Here now, a scant 8.5 months after our first meal there and a mere 5.5 months after we returned from the UK, is a writeup of the first restaurant we ate at in London: Ma La Sichuan, a hop, skip and jump from the door of our flat in Westminster. When we were flat-hunting a few months earlier, long-distance via the help of a friend on the ground, one of the things that had caught our eye about the one we ended up taking was that it was about a 45 second walk from one of London’s better-reviewed Sichuan restaurants. We figured Ma La Sichuan would be our regular go-to for dining-in and taking out. Things didn’t quite work out that way, though we did eat here a few hours after arrival, after dropping our luggage off at the flat, and one more time after that. Why didn’t we eat here more often? Read on.
I should say right off the bat that Ma La Sichuan is pretty good. That we didn’t eat here more than a couple of times has less to do with the quality of the food and more to do with the fact that we hadn’t quite realized before we got there how compact central London is. In short, we were within 10-15 minute tube and bus rides of a large number of attractive places and so there weren’t very many places we ate at more than once or twice. Also, Ma La Sichuan is a bit pricey for what it is and that didn’t help it break into our rotation on a more regular basis. And while it’s a better restaurant than Chilli Cool (even with price factored in), I think I’d take Baiwei over it as a value. But, as I say, it’s pretty good and I wouldn’t tell you not to eat there. It’s just that we have very good Sichuan food here in the Twin Cities—to say nothing of Los Angeles—and so spending a lot of money on Sichuan food was not a priority in London; especially given the alternatives and the ease of getting to them.
The high price of the average meal there has to do with its Westminster location. As with Cinnamon Club, about a 2 minute walk away, it attracts both an upscale business/parliament crowd and tourists doing the Big Ben/Westminster Abbey/Tate Britain crawl. Buckingham Palace and St. James Park are also within easy reach, making it a solid pick for anyone jonesing for spicy food while walking between sights. The restaurant is attractive, service is relatively formal, the food comes out attractively presented on attractive serve-ware, and the cooking is deft—even if not every dish we ate there was done in our preferred style. (Portions, however, are small, which doesn’t help with the value part.) The chef, I believe, was previously the chef at Bar Shu—London’s premier Sichuan place—before striking out on his own.
What we ate across our two meals (names of dishes as presented on the menu):
Our first meal (with the boys)
- Dan Dan Mian: As with chicken satay at Thai restaurants, so with dan dan noodles at Sichuan restaurants: our brats are guaranteed to eat it. They enjoyed this iteration too even though it was heavier on vinegar and crushed peanuts than the versions they’re used to.
- Bobo Beef: The description of the dish suggested this would be what we’re familiar with here as “couple’s beef” and so it turned out to be: sliced beef and offal tossed in a spicy sauce. Quite good.
- Sichuanese ‘Chao Shou’ Dumplings in Chilli Oil: The dumplings/wontons were very good but the chilli oil/sauce they were sitting on was a bit too tame and one-note for our liking.
- Legendary Ma Po Tofu: The dish may be legendary but this iteration was nothing out of the ordinary.
- Dongpo Pork: Ditto for the pork hock, which was the one dish from our first meal that we generated any leftovers from.
- Dry Fried Fine Beans: Also done a bit differently from the sauteed green beans we’re used to—more vinegary—and the boys, who usually inhale Sichuan green beans—were less than enthusiastic. The two of us liked them, however.
Our second meal (a quick lunch, just the two of us):
- Whelk in Spicy Chilli Sauce: This was completely new to us and it was very good. Nice interplay of texture, cold temperature and chilli heat.
- Dry Wok Pork Belly and Hand Torn Cabbage: Also quite good with good balance between tangy and hot notes.
For pictures of these dishes and the restaurant, launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for thoughts on service and to see how much these meals cost.
As you may be able to tell from the above, we liked our second, more compact meal more than the first. It’s entirely possible that from a very different selection of dishes from their copious menu we would have come to a very different estimation of the restaurant. Service was very good—attentive without any hovering. As for price, my credit card statements tell me that the first came to £72 all-in—our meal at Baiwei which generated a lot of leftovers, despite involving one less dish, came to less than £60 all-in. The second meal was only £32 all-in but also did not involve very much food. Still, as I said, I would not tell you to not eat at Ma La Sichuan if you were in the general neighbourhood and in the mood for something hot.
Well, this is farewell to London—at least for now. Even though we’ve been back a while now, our time there is still very vivid in our minds. I don’t know when/if we’ll ever be able to go back for anything approaching three months again (not for another decade, probably) but we do hope to go again for a week or two in the next couple of years. In many ways, London is our ideal city and if there were a way for us to retire there (there isn’t), it would probably be our top choice of place to end up in. Ah, well!
My next set of non-Minnesota reviews will be from Los Angeles—where we are scheduled to be at the end of December. Between now and then you can expect a few more reports from the Twin Cities metro area.