For years it was the Cabin Cafe. And for years we marched past, occasionally pausing to admire the fading press cuttings (the Peter O’Toole movie Venus was partly filmed here), or ponder the odd – almost hip-sounding – mix of greasy spoon and Chinese restaurant. But we never went in.
And then, in a whisper, the Cabin closed, and Forever Autumn opened. This new joint – named after the Jeff Wayne song? – specialises in (southwestern Chinese province) Szechuan cuisine, which can seem uncompromising to those unfamiliar with its nuances.
Outside, it’s worth lingering on an atmospheric corner where the tributaries of the River Fleet once converged, which also gave rise to the street name Spring Place. Nowadays, subdued daytime drinkers opposite occupy the green plastic chairs owned by the verdant George IV pub.
Inside, the spruced-up interior is still very functional: high-backed PVC chairs, plain tables. Despite being full of solo Chinese diners the previous evening, on our visit, a hot Tuesday lunchtime, it was empty. No alcohol, and “only Chinese drinks”, warned the waiter as we sat down, which suited us just fine, opting for iced green tea (although, oddly, we had to ask for ice).
Cheaper, more accessible dishes lurk at the back of the bound multi-page menu – rice with meat or fish, noodle soups, all around a fiver. Elsewhere, English translations are peppered with sometimes colourful words, a plethora of gizzards, intestines, tripe and fungus, although there are classics like Kung Pao (stir fry) chicken. Most expensive are the king crab and sea bass options (around £13).
In the end, we had mixed feelings about the three dishes we tried. Stir-fried pork belly ‘Szechuan style’ (£7.80) simply failed to pack a punch: overly mild and flimsily undercooked, the umami hit was noticeably missing from the calorie-packed, fatty meat.
An aubergine dish (£6.80) was better: smooth, moreish and not at all cloying, as it can be, with fried potatoes and peppers adding texture rather than flavour.
Best of all? Big fat juicy king prawns (£5.50) – fleshily white-pink – served on pleasingly wok-burned fried rice.
The myth of Szechuan cooking, of course, is that every dish is fiery; it’s not. And while our choices bore no trace of chilli, we hope to return for some spicier items. Which is why, having sampled only the smallest fraction of the menu, this is, by necessity, less review and more straightforward Pinboard story. Further delights surely await to be tasted, so let us know below if you can recommend anything to other readers.
As we paid, we asked the waiter why they chose this particular spot. “There are lots of Chinese students who live round here,” he said, simply. And this pragmatic, utilitarian approach in fact sums the place up.