If the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe taught us anything (putting aside the deeply religious connotations for just one second) it is that it is good to walk through strange doors. No really, imagine if they hadn't gone through the wardrobe. No story, just four kids from London on an adventure in the countryside. Okay Enid Blyton did well enough out of that with her bands of adventurers, five famous ones, seven secret, but you get my point. CS Lewis's novel is nothing without that first step over the threshold.
And so back to restaurants. Sometimes it's easy to go in. Candles flickering, white linen table cloths and a maitre d' waiting to take your coat. Why would you stay outside? But Top Taste (terrible name, but in fairness it is a direct quotation from the Chinese, liao wei feng) is harder. From the outside it looks like a cross between a terrible Cantonese takeaway and a herbal remedy store. It doesn't conjure images of a secret wonderland: you wouldn't think that Narnia, Aslan and Mr Tumnus were behind that door. But, you'd be wrong. Because behind that exterior are all the delights of northern Chinese cuisine (sadly I am no expert in the difference between the flavours of Xingjiang, Szechuan and Liaoning): sichuan pepper, mounds of chili and barbecued meats.
I was encouraged to take that first step into Top Taste thanks to a great article by Fuschia Dunlop on regional Chinese food available in London. While she might have missed out the best of the lot (Silk Road in Camberwell - a haven for Xinjianese cooking) she did have a number of other great recommendations - definitely worth a read.
The menu at Top Taste is split into Chef's specials, the Liaoning food I suspect, and various other generic Chinese dishes. With the restaurant full, we spent ages trying to guess what others were eating, before eventually settling on some dry fried green beans, stir fried lamb chop with chili and twice cooked pork with chili.
Green beans arrived first - a smack of chili, stirred through with minced chicken (this is not a place for veggies), salty with soy sauce, a heady mixture.
Next up was the highlight, lamb chops. You certainly wouldn't call them french-trimmed, but they were all the better for it. Slow-cooked over what must have been hours, then flash fried before being served, they were crispy and soft, like some kind of Liaoning take on southern fried chicken, but with lamb and laden with chili.
The only disappointment of the night was the twice cooked pork - the belly meat was a little dry in places, the szechuan pepper so liberally used that it didn't work for me.
Given the mounds coming out of the kitchen, we also had to try one each of the squid, beef tendon and BBQ lamb skewers. With a heavy dusting of cumin powder they worked well, but I am not sure if I would order the plate of 15 like others were.
Finally, and without any need given the volume of food consumed, we had a "pan fried garlic chive pancake pocket". Now it may look like something from Findus, but this was great, lightly fried with a crisp shell, the filling was joy of chive, egg and garlic.
So take that step, get over the drab exterior and walk inside. Top Taste will reward you with a feast of chilies and barbecue. Oh and the beers are only £2.50, what's not to like.