Tuesday, 24 January 2012
Cha Cha Moon, Soho
There are few restaurateurs that have had as dramatic an impact on the way this country eats than Alan Yau. The man who created an impressive number of famous restaurants such as Michelin-starred Chineses Hakkasan and Yauatcha, and plush Japanese Sake No Hana in St James (though not still involved day-to-day with very many of them), he is perhaps best known for being the founder of the extraordinarily popular Wagamama chain, which has so many branches now up and down the country - and around the globe - that they're almost as almost as ubiquitous on the high street as Boots or Marks & Spencer. To be honest, I'm not a fan of Wagamama - it's timid food served as quickly as possible, and the bench seating is infuriating for a number of reasons - but then I'm a snobby Londoner with access to places like Koya and Chilli Cool; I can easily see why they've been so popular elsewhere.
So the guy has a decent track record. And he has been very successful, perhaps thanks to the very clear set of expectations crafted by his restaurants. So far, each has filled a certain specific role; Hakkasan is posh Cantonese, Yauatcha is posh dim sum, Saka No Hana is posh Japanese. Similarly, Wagamama is budget Japanese and Busaba Eathai is budget Thai. So presumably Cha Cha Moon is budget Chinese except - what's this on the menu - Dolly mee goreng is Malaysian isn't it? And Fujian style udon is most definitely Japan. There's Thai chicken curry, Sichuan chicken, Singapore fried noodles, Indonesian satay, baby back ribs!? - geographically, it's all over the place. And if you think that pan-Asian restaurants are doomed to mediocrity because no one kitchen can master such a wide range of styles of cooking, Cha Cha Moon is unlikely to change your mind.
First thing to arrive - dishes are just brought out as and when they are ready - was a warm crispy duck salad. I suppose the duck was technically crispy in that it had been deep fried to near-oblivion, but thanks to the shredded flesh soaking up the fryer oil like a sponge, it was unbelievably greasy. The salad itself was dressed in what I can only assume was simple syrup as I didn't detect anything other than sugar, and while ordinarily I'd compliment their generosity on such a large portion for your £7.90, in this case it just meant there was more sickly, greasy gunk to wade through. Hideous.
Singapore fried noodles were better, but then so is driving a ten-inch cook's knife through your thigh. It was a bit sweet, a bit bland and despite being marked on the menu as "spicy" we couldn't detect even the slightest hit of chilli, but at least it was fresh and just about edible. Still, this was the kind of thing you could get from any High Street Chinese takeaway in the country, absolute bog-standard fare, and was £6.90.
These spring rolls tasted exactly like the ones you can get in the plastic cartons from Tescos. That's not to say they were in any way inedible, I just have this old fashioned notion that people visit restaurants to eat food they can't reheat themselves in the oven for a quarter of the price. They came with some kind of tamarind-based dipping sauce that made them taste of tamarind-based dipping sauce instead of spring rolls. We used up all of the sauce.
I can't begin to tell you how awful the baby back ribs were. The cloyingly sweet sauce (described coyly as "tangy" on the menu) they came soaked in wasn't enough to cover the appalling smell of commodity pig and the meat was so overcooked and formless it was like eating rancid pork-flavoured blancmange. Unspeakably bad, and although perhaps nothing can quite beat the ribs at Hard Rock Cafe for sheer catastrophic terror, these weren't far off. Pitt Cue in Soho is still the only place in town I've eaten ribs of any kind worth paying for.
We drank sickly lychee-flavoured cocktails and cheap white wine, as you tend to do in these places, and after gamely working at the more edible elements of the food, scurried off wondering what on earth just happened. Alan Yau has dropped so many balls with Cha Cha Moon the streets of Soho could be used to film a Sony Bravia commercial. With its directionless, geographically vague menu, timid and incompetently prepared food, and piercingly loud room fitted with those dreaded communal bench seats, it's hard to find anything even remotely positive to say about the place. Oh - the staff were very pleasant and there were lots of them so you never had to try to hard to get their attention. But for God's sake, even the toilets were shoddy - Alan Yau's places are famous for always having nice toilets, even the budget ones. It's baffling, and my meal was miserable, but all said and done, this is Soho and alternatives are hardly in short supply. Eat somewhere else. Eat anywhere else.
I was invited to review Cha Cha Moon