Sichuan food has become increasingly trendy in the UK since the opening of Bar Shu in London and the publication of Fuschia Dunlop’s fantastic books Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper and Sichuan Cookery. But this fashion hasn’t translated rapidly into the high street. While other Asian cuisines benefitted from recent waves of foodie enthusiasm and ingredients such as lemongrass and coconut milk became commonplace in the supermarket, Chinese food in the UK until recently still languished in 1980s-style takeout hell. In large measure it still does, and I tend to ignore the existence of most dodgy-looking Chinese restaurants around town. Moreover, while I’ve eaten in Bar Shu and enjoyed it thoroughly, that type of expensive, hipster dining experience isn’t really my thing. This is where the miracle of Brighton’s Lucky Star comes in, and for once, I can claim a small part in the story.
A year or so ago, a good friend, knowing my love of Asian food, told me about an ordinary little Chinese restaurant he’d seen bustling with Chinese students. (Brighton’s full of language schools so we have a lot of young people from around the world.) Intrigued, he went in, only to be presented with a bog-standard Anglo-Chinese menu, full of chow mein and kung po chicken. He asked if he could have some of the noodles the kids were eating and, after he assured the waiter repeatedly he wouldn’t find it too spicy, they obliged. He was so excited he texted me four times during that bowl of noodles. Soon I went with a larger expedition. We again begged for some of the dishes on the Chinese-language menu – any dishes, we said, just bring us some of this amazing looking food! We received lamb, fragrant with cumin, green beans slick with chili oil and covered in ground pork, deeply gingery tofu and again the heavenly vermicelli soaking up a porky sauce dusted with Sichuan peppercorns. Everything was completely fresh and the flavours fairly sang.
Soon, our original group started bringing more friends. We befriended the owner, Hong, who was pleased and a little bemused to find a group of white folks so enthusiastic about her food. She told us the chef came from Sichuan province, as she does, and they both return regularly to research new dishes. The menu was still a bit of a challenge and the waiters, while lovely, had understandably limited patience for our interrogations. So I bought a book on reading Chinese food characters and started to order dishes I could at least partially decipher on the menu. I was so proud of my limited Chinese reading skills and recognising ma po tofu or twice-cooked pork led to more amazing food. While the Chinese-reading experiment was fun, Hong took pity on us and persuaded one of the waiters to translate the menu. It turns out, our proselytizing had brought in a regular customer base who weren’t Chinese but wanted to eat the Sichuan regional cuisine.
Now there’s a full English-language menu that includes both familar Sichuan dishes and more unusual ones. A classic dish like beef in chili oil is a real showcase for the Sichuan peppercorn and dried chili combination: smoky warm chilies and floral peppercorns combine with a reassuringly oily broth. The cold potato with chili is at least as good as Bar Shu’s rendition of the dish, amazingly light with enough garlic and chili to infuse the julienned potato with a rich tang. Hong will also steer you toward some Northern fare for a winter’s evening: braised beef with potato, redolent of wine and anise, or by contrast stir fried vinegar cabbage with black fungus, seared with a satisfying wok hei. Moreover, new dishes appear each time the chef comes back from China. This is really exciting regional cooking, balancing traditional dishes with an obvious love for where Sichuan food is now.
I still see people come in for the generic Chinese buffet menu, and I suppose the restaurant relies on those customers too, but Lucky Star’s Sichuan menu feels like a secret club that I’ve been lucky enough to have joined. If you’re ever in Brighton, stop by and say hi to Hong from me…
Lucky Star, 101 Trafalagar St, Brighton BN2 4ER (no website)