Gourmet San
261 Bethnal Green Rd
Bethnal Green
Tower Hamlets E2 6AH
Don’t wave your chopstick or point them at people (I pointed at food…not sure if it’s OK…). Don’t drum your chopstick on the side of your bowl (ok, avoided). Absolutely DO NOT stick your chopstick into your rice (it’s an omen of death, in case you were wondering). Teapot spout pointing toward someone is a no-no (had beer so couldn’t go wrong), and NEVER flip a fish over or the next boat you’ll pass will capsize (I probably caused the biggest series of nautical accidents in history).

Being the restaurant in Bethnal Green these rules probably won’t apply, one might think, but as soon as you enter Gourmet San you are in Szechwan so, BEHAVE!

The place is small and the kitchen minuscule, but there wasn’t a single table available in the room. Luckily they have two other rooms upstairs (didn’t even notice the stairs) and that’s where we were taken. On my way up I had time to notice two things: the portions seemed humongous, and all the Chinese people in London were eating here.

Ordering is difficult, especially because the staff struggles with English, the menus are in Chinese (English copies available though) and the list of dishes is endless.

Andrew and Mary had been there before and seemed to be incredibly familiar with Szechwan cuisine, so we trusted them (and since then always will) and followed their instructions. We wrote down on a piece of paper what we wanted, showed it to the waitress, pointed at the menu just to make sure and started salivating. Very quickly, and very well staggered, our banquet arrived at the table.

Cucumber salad: cucumber cut in big chunky pieces, nice, refreshing, simple

Stir-fried aubergine: again, big chunky pieces of aubergines coated in some kind of soy syrup I suppose, which sent me over the moon!

Dry sweet and sour pork: looked like gigantic pork’s ears deep fried and unhealthily sticky. I don’t know what part of the animal actually was but I didn’t even get close to it. But the “zhu rou” made my friends a very happy trio.

Szechwan beef swamp: I was expecting an explosion of heat; I had pictured myself sweating, spitting fire and changing colour but it didn’t happen. Unfortunately. The strips of beef where too tough for me, but as said million times: I don’t like meat. There are cabbages and other vegetables in it too; ate those, nice, but not as spicy as I was hoping the dish to be.

Sea bass in back bean sauce: was ok, steamed, big, beautifully presented on a bed of cucumber slices

Mapo tofu: probably the dish I liked the most after the aubergines. Tofu and pork in spicy chili and bean sauce; oily but not even half of the beef swamp. Would have liked the sauce to be furiously spicy though.

Drinks: beer, jasmine tea and plum juice (nice discovery!)

Bill: about £20 each all in.

Now, before the score let me just say this: I enjoyed the evening and the experience very much; the food was cooked beautifully and I survived the night without Gaviscon (now a dear companion to our mission). The restaurant looks like a take-away in need of a face lift, but the service was good and the menu incredibly authentic. Only two suggestions: first, bring your own napkins because they don’t give you any and we had to ask the table behind us. Lastly, since I didn’t see any sort of cutlery around, bring a knife and a fork in your pocket. Or master the art of “chopsticking”!

  • Food: 3
  • Ambience: 2.5
  • Service: 3
  • Value: 4
  • Overall: 3.12
This one had been enthusiastically recommended by a couple of good friends who like good food, who even offered to accompany us. We agonised over whether to make it count or not for weeks: “What if we don’t like it and then feel bad about writing the truth after our friends recommended it?” The alternative would have been to decline but that, too, would have seemed rude. To go and then pick another one for the blog also felt awful. Making up excuses or downright lies is not my style, so that wasn’t an option either. In the end we chose to take the risk and go, tell the truth, write about it and say whatever we thought anyway. We did not even tell our friends about the weeks of indecision and doubt – they’ll be reading it here for the first time.

The good news is the place was great, so all our fears were swept away, the uncomfortable choice between truth and politeness having no reason for existence.

Let’s start with very first impressions. It is not in a nice part of the world at all, and it does not look good from the outside. The area is decrepit, looks dangerous and a bit desperate: a mix between places famous for stabbings and those famous for being the breeding ground of suicide bombers. From the outside it looks like just another square box of depressing trade on a High Street full of depressing trades.

The minute you walk in, though, things change. The inside is quite new, very basic but clean, simple, well maintained, buzzing, and most importantly completely full. I mean, not the Four Seasons, not even a nice bistro, but still perfectly acceptable. The clientele is almost exclusively Chinese, the smell is delicious, the waiters are smiling.

We were walked up to the first floor to a room with about six tables, sat at a window table and were presented with a huge menu. Some people around us were looking at menus written only in Chinese. This was getting more and more intriguing. The waitress, though kind, did not really speak English: we had to point at each and every dish to make her understand what we wanted. This was not helped by the fact the menu was basically a book; it was helped by the fact our friends knew what to have. We had a bunch of dishes and shared everything.

Cucumber salad: essentially it was cucumber and garlic (a lot of it). I did not like them, I knew before we ordered but the others loved them.

Stir fried aubergines. They were delicious, I have no idea how they were done but they were bursting with flavour and juiciness. The aubergines themselves were good quality, plus they looked like they were glazed in some sort of spicy sauce which stuck to them and made them irresistible.

Dry sweet and sour pork: the best dish of the day. It was not really dry: it was not in a puddle of sauce, but it was completely smothered with a juicy sweet and sour and spicy concoction. The meat was good quality and well cooked. This was a complex dish, not amateur stuff, and it was really quite something.

Sichuan beef swamp. I often have this at the Chinese restaurant by my office: it consists of a bowl full of oil and dried chillies with thin slices of beef: a bit like a carpaccio that’s been poached in chilli oil. This one had bit of cabbage, too, and was delicious. The flavour was more balanced than the one I usually have, the chillies were blended better, there was more beef, the cabbage added another layer of taste, it all just worked so well.

Sichuan sea bass. I did not try this as I do not like to blend meat and fish in the same meal but I heard very good noises about it. It looked awesome.

Spicy tofu, a.k.a. grandmother’s tofu (not on the menu, ordered specially by our friends). This was pretty hot, good, it was all about the sauce as the tofu is, well, tofu, but the sauce was complex stuff with a very balanced hot taste.

I drank plum juice (good!) and jasmine tea. The others had jasmine tea or beer.

Service was not great with all this pointing at the menu, plus she forgot the napkins, and forgot the plum juice the first time round. Still they were friendly, smiling, polite, did not make any major mistakes.

The total came up at £20 each, which was tremendous value for money for the quality of the produce.

On the whole this was a remarkably good meal, possibly the best we’ve had by quality of food in this entire mission so far. The rest of the experience was not great but acceptable, and the company made it a great Sunday night out.

  • Food: 3.5
  • Ambience: 2
  • Service: 2
  • Value: 3
  • Overall: 2.62