La Yuan

I have not been this excited by a new restaurant in a long time. If you’re long-time readers of this blog, you’ll know that we lived in Chengdu, Sichuan in China for a year from 2013-2014, and since coming back to the Toon, we’ve badly missed the food we grew to love there. But then  La Yuan, an authentic Sichuan restaurant, opened up on Gallowgate and we couldn’t believe our luck. We were invited along to try it out, but let me tell you readers, this is going to be our go-to place from now on, we have found our new favourite restaurant (I’ve totally spoiled the review haven’t I? What’s the point of reading past this paragraph now!) For those who love Chinese buffets and takeaways, this is not for you, but if you’re serious about eating quality Sichuan cuisine with the proper ingredients, then get yourself here asap and show your support for a local business.

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We arrived on a wet, cold Tuesday night. There were a few tables occupied, but for the most part the restaurant was quiet. We met the owner Joshy, and our waitress Rachel who showed us to seats by the window. We chatted with Joshy about his love for Sichuan cuisine, how he’s offering something different to the North-East food scene, and how he’s modernised some of the dishes on offer. He said that lots of these dishes go back centuries and are steeped in Chinese culture of the time period. But where they would use the cheap, grisly cuts of meat to create affordable meals to survive, he has cultivated them to use the best ingredients available. We discussed how in Chengdu all the dishes were so oily, with it pooling on the bottom of the plate, and Joshy said how we wouldn’t find that here. Yes, the ingredients are cooked in oil but they are presented in a more refined, professional manner than you’d get from the back kitchen next to Sichuan University (a frequent haunt of MrJ’s when we lived there).

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We couldn’t wait. But it was impossible to choose our dishes as we had fond memories of each one of them. Joshy decided he would give us his favourite dishes, wanting our honest feedback on whether he had got the authentic Sichuan taste exactly right.

I love the family-style way of dining in China. Dishes arrive when they are cooked, and everyone shares them together. It lets you try a bit of everything and just encourages sociable eating.

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To start we happily munched on crunchy pickled chinese radish (£6) which Joshy said he could happily snack on throughout the day. I can see why, the sour and slightly spicy taste was so addictive that my chopsticks just kept going back for more. The portion was large and MrJ took the rest of it away in a tupperware box to snack on at work the next day!

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We were then presented with our mains of Shuei Ju Beef, Hung Shiao Pork Belly, Shir Jin vegetables which are cooked in Joshy’s own ‘special ingredient’ sauce, which he wasn’t giving away!

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They were incredible. The beef and pork dishes evoked such strong feelings of meals we had in Chengdu that memories came flooding back, and before long MrJ and I were in a deep reminiscing session about what we loved so much about living in China. Sichuan dishes heavily feature the taste of Sichuan peppercorns which, if eaten, leave a numbing sensation in the mouth. It was used hit-and-miss in Chengdu with some restaurants getting the flavour and taste exactly right, while others bombarded the dish with it to the point where it overpowered everything else. They also would leave the peppercorns in the dish, so you would be constantly fishing them out of your meal to avoid constant tongue-numbing. Here though, the ingredient was used beautifully to give enough flavour to make it unique and definitely Sichuan, without compromising the rest of the dish.

The meat of both dishes was soft and tender, and the broth of the Shuei Ju Beef was rich and defined, without being overly oily as we had feared it could be. The Shiao Pork Belly had distinct sweetness from the star anise and heat from the peppercorns. However, for those fearing Sichuan cuisine is too spicy for their tastes, don’t worry. At La Yuan the heat is more in the flavour than in the burning-your-face-off-numb-tingling that can be found elsewhere. Here is a chef who knows how to use his ingredients.

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The vegetables were a mix of Chinese and English with asparagus spears and cauliflower, but I didn’t mind this at all and thought it added a Western elegance to the dish. I love how tasty they were, and the amount that was offered. I can see why it is a main dish in itself, and not classed as a side dish.

Also, you might love egg-fried or vegetable rice, but it’s not authentic. If you want the real deal, get steamed all the way. It came hot and steaming, perfectly cooked (you’d be surprised how many Chinese restaurants have served me overcooked or old rice that’s been standing around for hours).

I feel like I’ve talked about the food a lot, and not paid much mention to the interior or the service. It’s because the food does all the talking. The service from Rachel was excellent (I felt that when I left she was an old friend!) and the interior is plain and minimalistic but with accents of Chinese design.

What more can we say, other than that we loved it! And can’t wait to go back to try even more dishes (although that Shuei Ju Beef was so good, I wouldn’t be surprised if we just kept ordering it again and again!) If you haven’t been yet, please go, support this new business and help it flourish.

La Yuan can be found on 7-9 Gallowgate (near St James’ Park). Check them out on Twitter and Facebook too!

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