Is it possible to go to a foreign country, live there for a number of years and remain completely unchanged? In the case of British cuisine, the answer is a resounding yes. Although England ruled countries with the world’s most flavorful food, the Brits never thought to incorporate any of the newly found spices into their own cuisine. But while British food has remained unchanged, major cities in the U.K. are filled with foreign restaurants, which have a good number of British customers. By choosing not to create a fusion cuisine, the Brits have guaranteed that cities like London have some of the most authentic ethnic restaurants; arguably the best Indian food outside of India can be found in London (major props to Masala Zone – yes it’s a chain, but it was phenomenal).
But what about Chinese food in London? For over 100 years, England ruled the island of Hong Kong and made significant inroads into the Mainland prior to the Communist takeover, with major concession areas in Shanghai and Canton. But unfortunately, the number of good Chinese restaurants in London is scant. In speaking with a London friend who spent many years in China, she noted that there were only around three good Chinese restaurants in London, a disappointment indeed.
And that is how I found myself at Chilli Cool (the misspelling of “chili” is intentional), one of the recommended three, in the Kings Cross area of London. From the moment you open the door to the restaurant, Chilli Cool is unmistakably Sichuan, with the smells of the region engulfing you- a very promising sign. Additionally, Chilli Cool compromises two restaurants, one that serves Sichuan hotpot and one that serves appetizers dishes. My friend and I opted for the main restaurant to try the dishes.
The first dish we ordered, Sichuan Savory Hot Spicy Chicken (No. 6), a traditional Sichuan appetizer where the Chinese literally translates to “mouth-watering chicken”, was not just dead-on authentic but delish. The chicken, served in a bowl drenched by a Sichuan hot sauce and sesame seeds, was tender and although the dish is filled with a canopy of spices, the flavor of the chicken (which is served cold) is not lost. Instead, the spices only enhance the flavor. The chili is the main flavor of the dish, but the subtle smokiness of the black pepper serves as a wonderful compliment. Any trip to Chilli Cool is incomplete without ordering the Sichuan Savory Hot Spicy Chicken – Chilli Cool offers the best version of the dish that I have had outside of China.
To shake things up, we then ordered the Hot & Spicy Spare Ribs (No. 29) and the Dry Fried Chicken with Cumin & Chili (No. 37). Unfortunately that is where our culinary adventure began to go off course. Aside from the meat selection – one with chicken, one with pork – the dishes were exactly the same. Neither the English description nor the Chinese
name of the dish signaled that two dishes would be virtually identical and our waiter did not let us know that perhaps choosing two of the same dishes was not a good idea.
Fortunately, the chicken version came out first and was amazingly good and flavorful; if one had to choose between the two dishes (which one should otherwise it is repetitive), the chicken version is by far superior. The chicken was lightly fried and breaded, giving the dish a lightness that is often not found in fried Chinese food. For those with a more delicate palate, the dish was not overwhelmingly spicy and was bursting with flavor. The scallions, onions and peppers were fresh and perfectly complemented the mild chili flavor. However, the dish likely could have used a touch more cumin as that flavor went largely unnoticed.
As for the pork version, the spare ribs were a bit dry. Additionally, the flavoring of the dish tastes better with chicken. Arguably other pork dishes on the menu would be a better choice.
As our fourth and final dish, we ordered one of my favorites, Shredded Potato with Spicy Dried Chili (No. 18). When I lived in China, this dish was a staple for me and when made right, is a good carbohydrate alternative to
rice. Unfortunately, Chili Cool could not have made it more wrong. The dish, which is usually very lightly fried, came out drenched in grease. If made right, the potato slices should be firm; in the Chilli Cool version they were soft and soggy. For some reason, Chili Cool added cloves to the dish which was weird and messed too much with the flavor. Our Shredded Potato dish remained untouched during our meal.
Although one of the dishes was largely inedible and we were not properly warned that two of our dishes were twins of each other, I would still recommend a visit to Chili Cool when in London. Two of the dishes were pretty amazing and could easily compete with the Sichuan chefs of Chengdu or Chongqing. However, it might be best to stick with the traditional Sichuan “appetizers” (like dan dan noodles and Sichuan dumplings).
However, do note that Chilli Cool is no where near “Chinatown cheap.” With four dishes and one beer, Chili Cool set us back 40 pounds (approximately $63), a lot of money considering two of the dishes were not that great. Chilli Cool holds promise to be an amazing experience but a more careful selection from the menu is necessary.
15 Leigh Street
London, UK WC1H 9EW
020 7383 3135
Nearest Tube Station: Kings Cross