Monday, 30 January 2017

Backs to the window - Xi'an Impression

Following the ‘bad news first’ rule, I’m going to get the negatives about our lunch at Xi’an Impression out the way – namely the view across the street. Now I appreciate that one man’s meat is another man’s poison, so perhaps looking at Emirates would be welcome for some patrons. But, as a supporter of North London's first team, I made sure to resolutely keep my back to the window (let's get this straight, I went to the toilet and came back to find 'we' had moved tables to make sure HER back was to Emirates - TE).

Thankfully, things markedly improved from this point onwards when the waiter, shortly after taking our order, re-approached the table to ask if we had eaten there before. After, cautiously, responding in the negative, he enthusiastically congratulated us for ordering all the right things. Not particularly difficult choices -  I had read a few reviews and blogs beforehand, plus the recommended dishes have a Facebook style ‘like’ symbol on the menu - but it still made me feel secretly smug.

Xi’an, located in the Shaanxi Province, is the end of the Silk Road, home to the terracotta Army (yes, I have been on Wikipedia) and, due to its cold climate, has a cuisine based on wheat instead of rice. Happily, this means a proliferation of noodle dishes, one of the most famous being ‘cold skin noodle with gluten’.  The dish is made by soaking a salt and flour dough in water and retaining the cloudy liquid before allowing it to settle overnight and then steaming the sediment in shallow trays, slicing into thin strips and serving cold.

While it doesn’t perhaps sound the most attractive of propositions on paper, it’s a pretty little dish, finished with a julienne of cucumber and a slick of (not very spicy) oil. Apply caution (or wear a dark shirt), these suckers are slippery.

The boneless chicken in ginger sauce was another beguiling plate - the strips of buttery poached meat built up in a dome over slices of pickled cucumber and served with a sauce spiked with strips of fiery ginger – and tasted just as good. This was possibly my dish of the day; delicate and clean with a little kick at the end and the antithesis to most boring breast dishes.

The Ewing wanted dumplings and chose the delicate pot stickers, stuffed with pork and seaweed, over the heftier boiled variety. These are served open-ended, with a crispy frill from being pan fried, and were juicy and hot - just as you want your dumpling action to be. The waiter also kindly offered to bring us the traditional Xi'an dipping sauce traditionally served with the boiled dumplings, a black vinegar and spring onion flecked number which I happily flung over everything on the table, plus myself.

Biang, biang mian – wide wheat noodles, so called for the onomatopoeic slapping sound they make on the table when they are being pulled – reminded me of the wonderful big belt noodles served at Silk Road in Camberwell. Here we tried them with beef, instead of the more familiar chicken, and were rewarded with an Eastern twist on Italian pappardelle with ragu - a rich and fragrant rib-sticker of a dish with bouncy noodles that had a pleasing elastic chew and a background heat that built from the pool of fragrant chilli oil.  

As well as tasting great, fact fans may also be interested to know that biang is also, apparently, the Chinese character comprised of the most brushstrokes - 58 strokes in its traditional form. The character for "biáng" cannot be entered into computers, hence why you will always see it written in a truncated form, or using the roman alphabet, on menus.

While I don’t have any pointless trivia about the beef ‘burger’ - the final item that emerged from the kitchen, as the first batch were still being prepared - I can report it was worth the wait. Comprised of a shallow, dense bun, a little like an English muffin, split and stuffed with shredded beef that was laced with liberal amounts of cumin and chilli (the hottest thing we ate), it was just missing a rustling pile of chips.

I jest about the fried potatoes; even the Ewing and I were struggling to clear our plates at this point. Of course, we still managed it though, leading to the second compliment of the meal when our waiter applauded us for finishing every dish, after originally thinking we had over-ordered. I assured him it was more of a testament to the quality of the food rather than our gluttonous nature, but didn’t quite know whether to feel smug or ask for my wafer thin mint and roll myself out the door.

While there’s no booze (you can bring your own), barely any room and the neighbourhood is questionable (certainly for a Lilywhite), the service is lovely, the food fantastic and, if you don’t look out the window, you’ll be more than alright.

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