A FRIEND claims his head swelled up last time he dined at Mr Chilli.
He had ordered a heap of chilli frogs legs and insisted on gobbling the lot.
Retribution came swiftly. Like some spell cast by a Grimms witch, the episode added new meaning to that taste test cliche: “His eyes were bigger than his belly”. For the next two days, his were.
I learned this after I was marvelling about a dish called “hot and numbing beef” that I had devoured at the all-new, glassy 'n glossy Mr Chilli in Seel Street.
Hot and numbing beef needs careful approach,
but with Sherpa Tsing Tao by your side it's
an ascent that will be conquered
I say all-new. For years Mr Chilli’s heat radiated from unpromising looking, steel-shuttered premises at the bottom of Mount Pleasant. Inside, a restaurant so celebrated that no one dared write about it. Even now, on TripAdvisor and other customer-review sites there is scant mention of it, where stars for others less worthy doth gush.
I was once asked by a fan (a Mr Chilli fan) if we would refrain from bandying its merits about all over the internet. Why? Lest we perhaps crack the magic mirror? No, he just didn’t want EVERYONE going there. Only some, it seemed, were permitted to like it hot.
Mr Chilli was known, by the fortunate, for its fiery Sichuan charms (clue in name) and an arresting penchant for table-top flame barbecuing. You didn’t need theme evenings, no bad poetry, haggis and neeps once a year: according to happy punters, every night was, potentially, Burns Night.
Of course nothing bad ever happened, just as it tends not to right across the Far East and China when someone lights a match under food. But, shhh, you know how uptight some people get about these shenanagins.
But all good things etc, and the place suddenly closed. People got sad and got on with their lives. And time healed.
Then, last summer, van men started carting squeaky banquettes and shiny, new catering equipment into a large, smart, ground floor unit of the building known as Elysian Fields. One suspected the worst - not another bloody cocktail bar - until one morning some huge red letters appeared across the front: “Mr Chilli”. Could it? Would they?
This is not about Cantonese slooter. Here we have heat, and more importantly, thought and effort. Sichuan cuisine is composed of basic flavours: sour, pungent, hot, bitter and salty - a bit like Suzanne Moore’s twitter timeline. But it also includes sweet and aromatic. Oh, and nuts (did you see that, spacehopper-head boy?).
The once-exclusive Chinese-way menu is proffered alongside the gwailo, Anglican bill of fare, where you’ll get your beef in oyster sauce and even the mushroom omelette that your dad won’t be talked out of.
The former menu’s exotica is translated into English, a relatively new development in Liverpool: Cafe de Pearl does it, and one or two others. Perhaps it is a sign of the times, designed to appease a modern generation of Brit-raised Chinese, rather than a desire to alert your average Walton hen night to the delights of chewing pigs’ ears. There will be plenty of that later, in The Cabin.
We took advantage of the first. Fried whelk in “homely sauce” (no idea) and deep fried pork intestine were given a miss, on this occasion, for the mild-mannered Sichuan roast duck (£9.50). Meaty and generous, the duck was flanked by thick slices of pink Spam, that's right, over a carefully contrived jumble of colour and textures that included bamboo shoots, pak choi, shiitake mushrooms.
Shredded treat: Crispy duck in the interests of research
Hazelnuts, dwarf beans, water chestnuts and plenty of nippy, yappy red chillies snapped at the heels of the Gong baou chicken (£7.50) which delighted all the senses, as good Oriental food must.
Take a baou:
Gong Baou ChickenThen came the hot and numbing beef (£9.50), a cascade of finely chopped red chillies that had landed on a summit of sweet, yeilding flesh; explosive seeds scattered like volcanic ash; a coriander leaf the only flourish. The man who cooks it is from Beijing and is not going to be talked down from his peak.
It needs careful approach but with Sherpa Tsing Tao by your side this is an ascent that will be conquered.
I feel a guard of golden chopsticks forming in Mr Chilli’s honour.
All three were thoroughly memorable, which is not something you get to say every day after a dinner in Chinatown. Service was smiling, helpful and relaxed, ditto.
Not to be overlooked were the cop-out crispy duck quarter and pancakes (£8.50) that we ordered purely in the interests of research - and the deep fried chicken wings in chilli and salt (£4.50) that came at the start.
We were the only non-Chinese in there, which means bugger all in my book, but let’s cut to the chase. Mr Chilli takes Chinese cuisine some considerable way to where it desperately needs to be in Liverpool. As mentioned elsewhere on Liverpool Confidential, the oldest Chinese community in Europe, sadly, does not equate with the best food.
This new incarnation, with its bright, airy and polished approach, sets the bar. Mr Chilli is not the flashy Yang Sing by any means. If you really want that, you know where the M62 is.
Instead, save your petrol for some immense food on your own manor.
It talks the talk and it walks the wok.
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ALL SCORED CONFIDENTIAL REVIEWS ARE IMPARTIAL.
Critics dine unannounced and we picks up their bills - never the restaurant,
never a PR company.
1-5: Get a doggy bag - for the dog
6-9: Get to the chippy
10-11: It's an emergency!
12-13: If you happen to be passing
14-15: Worth a trip out
16-17: Very good to exceptional
18-20: As good as it gets