Some time ago there was one of our regular heated discussions on just where was the best Chinese in Oxford and it was agreed that the only way to resolve that discussion was to visit as many as possible and compare them all so that is what we have started to do. Sometimes, it might be just Jacqui and I, other times we are accompanied by our honorary Bitten members, including our resident Chinese expert, Carmen. And this is a great time to mention that if you want consistently excellent Chinese home cooked food, you really should pay a visit to her supper club ChilliBooChan
My Sichuan had been reviewed byJay Rayner just prior to our visit and his joy at the lamb ribs with cumin made me keen for a visit so a cold Friday night found five of us huddled into a corner of the restaurant. It’s an odd restaurant, situated just outside the Gloucester Green square and alongside the coach station bays. Previously a school for boys, it was then a ticket booking office for the coaches in the early 80s before becoming a fairly decent pub in the early 90s. Actually, it was a damn good pub with above average pub food, a series of interlinking rooms and some awesome bar staff, of which I was one! Then the front part became the tourist information office for a while before it relocated to Broad St and an Indian restaurant occupied it for a brief time. Meanwhile, the pub closed and sat empty again before being reincarnated as My Sichuan. Now it’s an odd mix of a large, architecturally pleasing grand space with some random sparse Oriental decorations and a canteen feel dining set up. It’s also not very warm so be prepared to either wear layers or order lots of chilli dishes. Luckily, being Sichuan style cooking there’s lots of chilli to be had.
It’s not your usual Chinese restaurant. There’s several dishes which contain ingredients somewhat unfamiliar to the English palate, such as duck’s tongues, pigs intestines and tripe – all of which are worth a try if you’re adventurous. Except the duck’s tongues. The sensory memory of those still make me shudder!
We wanted to try a wide range of dishes and our standouts that evening were these.A selection of dim sum which disappeared before I even had a chance to register what was there. They were good! The recommended lamb ribs, sliced thinly and aromatic with cumin. Possibly a little drier than I would have liked but that didn’t stop me from sucking every sliver of meat off the bones. Fried crispy tofu with chilli which even the meat eaters were tempted by! Our dream dish by far was the house speciality fish – delicate cubes of white fish boiled in a clear broth with a LOT of chilli and Sichuan peppercorns. Warming, tingling, spicy, delicate and oh, so fresh. This far superseded the much loved slow roasted pork belly. Seriously good and a contender for one of our top Chinese places, even despite the somewhat lacking service.
Next up, Jacqui and I snuck in a sneaky visit to Xi’an in Summertown. Having heard good things, we were hoping this would be a serious contender to My Sichuan. It wasn’t.
We arrived early evening and it’s a lovely restaurant which immediately rated it above My Sichuan. Unfortunately that’s as good as it got. Paper tablecloths I can just about cope with but it still raises an eyebrow in a restaurant that charges a little extra. Having dishes arrive on plastic platters though is an absolute no. Let me say that again. PLASTIC PLATTERS. This did not bode well.
The food was indeed memorable, but sadly for all the wrong reasons. A starter of Mongolian crispy lamb to wrap in lettuce leaves arrived with half an iceberg and a puddle of water. The General Tso’s pork, described as savoury deep fried chicken with broccoli made me hopeful for a mouth alive with umami but it was actually bland and boring. Spurred on by good memories of tofu, we ordered their yellow bean version which succeeded in reminding us wy we don’t actually like tofu. Jacqui’s Xi’an house noodles was also uninspiring and we left feeling disappointed and still vaguely hungry.
A group of us visited the Opium Den next. Whilst half of the group gossiped, Carmen, Rob and I got down to the serious business of ordering what seemed like half the menu, which is mostly in Chinese with vaguely English descriptions and lots of bad photos. We kicked off with the dim sum sets and the dumplings were all good, disappearing quickly again. The chicken glutinous rice wasn’t as popular, having an odd lingering aftertaste.
Mains included stir fried lamb in godmother’s spicy sauce, sweet soy braised sea bass, an aubergine dish and the shredded pork in spicy fragrant sauce. The general consensus was that everything was fine but there wasn’t anything amazing. A bit better than your average Chinese but still not wow.
Then another flipping food reviewer beat us to it, Giles Coren at Zheng. He raved about them, saying they were possibly the best authentic Chinese/Malaysian in the country. Having visited shortly after Zheng had opened, it was quickly agreed that this should be our next visit but due to holidays, life in general and Bitten Street, it was months before we finally got round to it.
A fond memory of the crispy cereal prawns made that a definite menu choice along with salt and pepper squid, crispy duck and of course our required dim sum buns and dumplings. So far, so good. The menu takes some navigating, being twelve pages long and separated by regions but we coped admirably and ordered satay, braised pork belly, stewed aubergine, shredded potato, sea bass with ginger and spring onions. Service here was good, food was consistently good although we all agreed the pork belly was under par but nothing wowed us. However, it was good enough to bump it up into second place.
We realise we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of Oxford’s Chinese restaurants and that this is going to be an ongoing project. It’s a hard life! Next on our list is Bamboo, Shanghai 30s and Rosetree but if you have any must try recommendations, do let us know.
Story so far: Bitten recommends My Sichuan and Zheng.