Wednesday, 15 October 2014
Ippudo, St Giles
There's always a risk in expanding a restaurant abroad that there will be some aspects of your style or facility, happily accepted as normal in your home country, that will not sit well with your new audience. TGI Friday's, for example, has become notorious for the kind of gurning over-familiarity of service that British people dismiss as "typically American" but which presumably great swathes of the US consider perfectly satisfactory. And at the other end of the scale, the typical level of "service" encountered in a huge number of high-end Parisian cafés would be considered nothing short of abusive anywhere else. In fact, I'm pretty sure even in Paris they're not very happy about it most of the time.
The trick, then, is to translate your restaurant abroad rather than just create a carbon copy of it and print the menu with a different currency. Shake Shack, for example, have had success in their new Covent Garden home by keeping the same what works back in NYC (the burgers, fries etc) whilst cleverly tailoring the fringes of the menu with local producers (Kernel beer, Paul A Young chocolates). And let's not forget arguably London's best steakhouse Goodman is a Russian's idea of a New York restaurant, which works in its Mayfair location thanks to a European wine list, a fantastic range of UK & Ireland beef, and friendly - though crucually not TGI Friday's-matey - staff.
So what to make of Ippudo. Maybe everything they're doing in Singapore, Sydney, New York and the dozens of other branches around the globe is perfectly in tune with the needs and sensibilities of the local population. Perhaps Indonesians like nothing better than to be paraded through the restaurant on arrival like contestants on a game show while twenty members of staff scream unintelligable Japanese in their faces. Perhaps in Seoul, being pestered with questions ten times a minute is the very finest way to enjoy your faintly mediocre and overpriced dinner. And there's even a chance that in Taipei it's normal to be asked how various dishes are before you've even had a chance to taste them.
But not here, guys, not here. Not now, and not ever. Ippudo is completely and utterly insufferable on many levels but even if the food had been any good (it wasn't) it would have been hard to objectively rate it apart from the experience of eating there, which has to rank alongside a root canal in terms of comfort and relaxation. It's not just the stupid welcome parade, which is ear-burningly embarrassing for all concerned. It's not just the constant, intrusive badgering about this and that, from all sides, like trying to enjoy your dinner whilst undergoing a driving theory test. No, more than all that, it's just that like so many theme restaurants that have opened in London over the years, it all feels so tragically hollow and stage-managed, obsessed with stupid theatrics and entirely devoid of heart.
What's more upsetting is that I really was expecting to enjoy it. Let's face it, London has been on a bit of a roll recently with ramen joints, to the extent that I was beginning to suspect that ramen was pretty easy to get right all along and a lot of people were making a fuss over nothing. And in fact, the ramen itself was one of the few things at Ippudo worth the money they were asking for it. It wasn't great, by any means - cold, crumbly pork topped a creamy, rather one-note broth, and the noodles had none of the taste or bounce of Kanada-Ya - but it was comforting in a straightforward kind of way.
But the rest of the food ranged from odd to bizarre, stopping at weird along the way. House pickles came in a little glass bowl containing some strange sweet liquid, some raw (ie not pickled) and bland cherry tomatoes, and a great big sprig of flat leaf parsley. Oh and a bit of lemon. For some reason.
Chicken kara-age were greasy and soft, with none of that light bubbly coating I'd come to expect from versions at Tonkotsu and Sasuke, and were only really eaten (accompanied at all times, remember, by the constant background natter "is everything OK?"... "do you like your chicken?"... "can I take that plate away?") because they were there.
Sesame prawn toast were a disaster, soft and so drenched in grease they immediately brought on a gag reflex. As to why they were accompanied by lime ("do you like your sesame toast?") and another massive sprig of parsley ("can I take that plate away now?"), well... who knows.
Zuke-maguro was a plate of dull Itsu-level sashimi salad ("would you like another beer?") with some admittedly quite nice soft boiled quails eggs ("would you like another napkin?") alongside some, er, radicchio and asparagus. Obviously very weird, but not as weird as a kale, asparagus, blueberries (?), cherries (!?), nuts, balsamic and olive oil concoction we spotted on the menu.
And all the time the interruptions, the chanting, the noise. I'm all for enthusiastic service but I don't want twenty people screaming their approval every time I go for a piss, and I don't get the impression this was first-fortnight nerves (Ippudo has been open since 2nd October). I can only assume this is how they mean to go on, and that the humiliating parade-shouting in and out, the bizarre food and the overattentive-to-the-point-of-mania service are all "features" that have made Ippudo so inexplicably popular with those short of attention and hard of hearing the world over. Well, at least I can say I've tried it. And with better ramen available so easily elsewhere, I can definitely say I won't be back.