121-4600 No 3 Road
Those who are familiar with Bushuair know that it is infamous for two things: its many names (it has been called Gordon Park, Aroma Garden, the Xiangcai Museum/Pavilion, and now finally Bushuair); and its menu is peppered with hilariously endearing Chinese to English mistranslations.
Hunan cuisine will probably never attain the level of acceptance of Sichuan food in this part of the world. Hunan and Sichuan share some similarities – they are both known to be spicy cuisines that rely on the chili pepper for much of their flavour profiles. Hunan cuisine is more assertive in its use of chilies. Hunan cooks use fresh and pickled chilies about as much as dried. One type of Hunan dried chili – Hunan White Chili is particularly incendiary in the Scoville scale of chili pepper heat. It is this heat – which can go on unabated throughout the meal – that provides a challenge for the prevailing Cantonese palate here. Sichuan cuisine has the potential to reach this level of spiciness, but more often than not, the dishes are mitigated by a a balance of sweetness and spiciness…and most importantly of ma la – or the numbing heat introduced by Sichuan peppercorn. (The Sichuan peppercorns provide an antidote to the chili pepper’s capsaicin.)
A number of us around the dining table that night are quite familiar with Bushuair having dined here a number of times. The topic that has come up in our discussions in the past is how Bushuair has a schizophrenic tendency to be both a decidedly mediocre restaurant at one time and an excellent one at another. This tendency makes it a difficult place to recommend. I often have to say almost apologetically: “it’s a great place if you know what to order”…or “it’s a great place if you can convince them to prepare the food authentically.” On Chinese New Years a couple of weeks ago, we had Dylan dining with us. Dylan knows the staff there and he has vouched for its authenticity on numerous occasions.
While I didn’t think this feast was particularly spicy (we have all had great, and very spicy meals at the only other Hunan in town at Alvin Garden…and Dylan had told us that Bushuair was the site of the spiciest Chinese meal he has had outside China), I thought that tonight’s meal was spicy enough and definitely the best I have had here. Of note is the Fish Head with Chili – where the head of a “big head” river carp is split and served with pickled Hunan peppers. The traditional rendition of this dish is called “Double Pepper Fish Head” (or “Two Colour Pepper Fish Head ) owing to its use of both green and red chilies to flavour and decorate the fish heads. The manager assured us that this single (red) pepper is a better version here and the one that she prefers.
The other standout was their Hunan Chili Crab – perhaps one of the best crab dishes I have had in town. It was messy to eat – like all crab dishes of this type of preparation, but the spicy and slightly sweet sauce begged to be licked off the shell.
None of the other dishes were singularly stellar – some were great and some were merely good…but taken as a whole, this feast was excellent.