The first, second and often last thing anyone has to say about Hunanese food is that it’s spicy. Spicy enough to knock your proletarian socks off and break you free of the chains of class struggle, if the fate of Hunan’s most famous progeny – one Mr Chairman Mao – is anything to go by.
With this in mind, the icily chic courtyard of The Southern Fish’s new Xicheng space feels like a refreshing tonic against the mouthfuls of fire you’re about to consume. Tables are arranged in small clusters between big glass walls and milky concrete gardens, and the whole place is flooded with natural light. Another thing that’s hot here is the clientele. We’re not sure if we’ve accidentally stumbled into a Models ‘R’ Us convention, but the density of beautiful people with expensive hair is certainly much higher here than in your standard Hunanese joint.
The menu here is similar to the original
. We start with a selection of spicy pickled vegetables that are delightfully crunchy, and a slightly limp, braised tofu that has an odd putridity, despite not being billed or served as the Hunan stinky special of chou doufu
, which would have been more apt. The Hunanese classic duojiao yutou
(108RMB) is so popular that it’s sold out by the time we order, so we opt instead for a fried carp dish of xiangjian jiyu
(59RMB) which is just as heavy on the pickled chillies as the steamed fish head we were hoping for, the crispy skin a welcome complement to the soft, gelatinous flesh within.
Also soft and gelatinous is the lajiao pidan (39RMB), a dish of mashed green peppers with preserved egg that form a creamy pulp, cut through with streaks of spice.
Our taste buds are held over the grill once more with funan fengmi niurou (73RMB), a dish which translates enigmatically as ‘The Southern Fish’s secret wind beef’, and which completely steals the show. We don’t know what the secret is, but lean, slightly cured slices of beef fried up with the standard chilli, garlic and spring onion backing is somehow transformed into a dish that’s monstrously good and just weila enough to fool you into thinking you can wolf down mouthfuls at a time without being punished. Our one respite from the heat comes from the aubergine fried with green beans (39RMB), which is oily and delicious, in the way that Chinese-style aubergine often is.
Hunan cuisine is one of the heavier hitters in the world of Chinese cooking, delivering both a spicy punch and often an oily drop-kick for good measure. Perhaps it’s the minimalist monochrome of The Southern Fish’s interior design or the cool, brushed crockery, but a meal here certainly doesn’t feel like a greasy affair, despite the fact that the food is hardly light. Far from it, if we’re being completely honest. What the food is, however, is an authentic Hunanese offering that’s spicy enough to get those revolutionary endorphins circulating, but in an environment that’s chilled-out enough to make you think, ‘why bother?’
Dinner for two: roughly 200RMB.
By Amy Hawkins