16-18 Upper Tachbrook St, Pimlico, London SW1V 1SH www.dragoninnclub.co.uk
In a little-known part of London, we find a bit of a gem of a place where the Sichuan cooking is definitely hot.
I have become, comfortably numb. My lips, my tongue are all feeling very post dentist. I’ve had four dishes, all laced with Sichuan pepper, and I am as happy as can be.
For those that don’t know Sichuan pepper, the first thing to note is that it’s not hot at all. It has a substance in it called hydroxy alpha sanshool which causes the numbing sensation and delivers a lemony flavour to Sichuan dishes. It really is very addictive and a whole Chinese cooking style relies on it.
And talking of Chinese there are a great many eating here at Dragon Inn Club tonight. There could even be more because this place is a Tardis. While upstairs is quite normal sized with a robata grill, downstairs seems to go on forever with rooms, rooms, and then rooms off of rooms.
Now, I don’t think that the presence of lots of Chinese, or Chinese heritage customers, in a Chinese restaurant is necessarily a sign of quality, but you have to admit it’s not a bad sign either.
The decor has more wood on show than a Swiss chalet. It’s supposed to recreate ‘the authentic feel of old-world, 8th century China during the age of the golden Silk Road’, the website says and who am I to argue? It could perhaps have ended up cheesy, but it isn’t really and makes a change from the usual kind of nondescript decor.
The centre area downstairs is for hot pots, each table has a massive extractor over it, but we are in a cosy little room to one side with authentic Chinese drums on the wall. An authentically French maître d’ having shown us to our table.
The menu at first glance has pretty much what you’d expect of a Chinese restaurant, but I’d looked at it on the website earlier and earmarked the Sichuan dishes.
First, we have ‘Prawns Ravioli with a spicy vinaigrette dressing’. These come looking gorgeous, like punk versions of dim sum. They are slipperier than a local MP though, and we both spend ages trying to get at them with chopsticks until I finally lose patience and use my fingers.
Popping with juicy prawn and fired up by chili, they have a slight astringency from the dressing and we fight genially for the last one.
Very appealing visually is the “Signature French corn-fed chicken slices in Sichuan oil”. I don’t usually go a bundle on Chinese cold chicken as often it can be a bit slimy, but here each slice is firmly textured.
They interleave the chicken with cabbage, put it into a bowl and then turn it out just like you used to make sand castles as a nipper. This is very spicy hot, gorgeously nutty with a snowfall of sesame seeds and cashews on top and generally a big hit with us both. I even eat the chicken skin.
Sichuan food actually gets its notorious heat from dried chillies, a lot of dried chillies in fact. In the low-light of many restaurants it’s easy for some idiot to dive into a dish without noticing that the meat is literally buried in dried chillies. I know this because I was once that idiot and very nearly passed out as a result.
Today I am older and wiser and so with my dish of Sichuan classic dry fried chicken I carefully pick out the pieces of chicken from the mass of chillies and only let one or two bits of the soaked and then fried chili come with the meat.
It’s delicious, the chicken which has been marinated in soy sauce and rice wine and then coated in cornflour, is sweet and tender and then the chili and Sichuan pepper kick in like a drum fill.
It’s fun to root around in the mound of chilies left over, ever hopeful that you might find just one last piece of chicken to savour.
Tofu I can usually take or leave. I like it fried, but then even polenta is bearable fried so that doesn’t prove anything. In Ma Po Tofu with minced beef, one of the signature Sichuan dishes, the silken tofu is cooked with fermented bean paste, ground Sichuan pepper and other aromatics and spices.
It’s hot, vibrant, wonderful. The mince is really just a small side attraction, a flavouring almost. Piled onto lots of white rice, that was a bit overcooked we thought, the whole dish is a great blend of textures and assertive flavours. And we are now comfortably numb, suitably sated, sat back in our seats with a shine on our foreheads. It’s time to muster the strength for desserts.
We get a selection of mochi, those round buns made of soft and chewy rice usually baked or boiled. The gelatinous texture is not for everyone and it has, apparently, caused deaths in Japan where greedy diners have not chewed enough and blocked their windpipes.
Not wishing to be UK statistics, we take our time. Sweet, savoury and with various fillings that I can’t reliably identify, red bean paste and green tea I think, they work well with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
I was a bit hesitant about Dragon Inn Club, it sounded wrong on paper. The fact is that it was me that was wrong, on the strength of these dishes I’d go back again to try some more.
It’s a surprising place to find in this overlooked neighbourhood, and a bit of a walk from Victoria station, but one that’s well worth making.