Monday 29 April 2013

Balthazar, Covent Garden

I just wish Balthazar had been cheaper, or better. Or both, of course - that would have been nice too - but I still could have lived with either cheaper or better. Because if it was cheaper I could have enjoyed its straightforward French food in the same way as I enjoyed Brasserie Zedel, where you're never likely to have the meal of your life but can generally get away with spending less than £15 for a very passable steak haché, frites and a salad, or if it was better I could have rated it alongside the Wolseley or Delaunay, where you can see where you money goes.

"But it's not about the food" you'll hear people say. "People go to Balthazar for the room and the service and the atmosphere. It's about the experience". Well, I'm all for a nice experience but I'm afraid no matter how great the surroundings and atmosphere, once I've paid £9 for a very ordinary goat's cheese tart I start to enjoy such marginal factors as lighting and nice mosaic floors that much less.

We didn't, thank the heavens, have quite as disastrous an evening as some. Nothing was inedible, we didn't have to send anything back, and we didn't see any cling film. We liked the house bread (particularly the sourdough), the butter was soft, the red leather banquette very comfortable. But even so, Balthazar did not do anywhere near enough to justify the £50 a head bill, or the frankly baffling difficulty of getting a table.

The aformentioned goat's cheese tart suffered from a slightly runny mixture (undercooked perhaps) but was seasoned well and was still just about edible. It came with an underdressed - in fact practically naked - salad and instead of a chutney or something that would have offset the creaminess of the tart, a pile of salty tapenade. None of it was awful, but it was an unsatisfying, worryingly amateurish plate of food for £8.25+service.

Chicken liver & foie gras mousse was better; again basic to the point of homely but with a good rich amount of foie and a lovely smooth texture. This may even have been worth the money we paid for it.

Linguini wasn't a disaster either, although I'd had a much better seafood pasta dish at Osteria Antica on Northcote Road the weekend before, and it cost a fiver less.

You can do a lot worse for £17 elsewhere - in fact you can do a lot worse at Balthazar by the looks of things - than this "bar steak", which had a great charred flavour and was cooked exactly as requested. Chips were a bit strange - oily and orange and so tiny it looked like they had been chipped both horizontally and vertically, and I wasn't too keen on the vinegary bearnaise, but the steak was the main event and it was good. Not very good, not brilliant, but good.

Service veered between over-attentive and bizarrely inept. A request for lemon with our water was met with an astonished look from our first waiter, who scurried off for someone more senior to confirm that actually yes, we did want lemon with our tapwater. A few minutes later, two glasses arrived each with a quarter of fresh lime in. I ordered a Negroni Finis and was brought something that looked suspiciously like a standard Negroni. When I questioned whether this drink really did contain the advertised passionfruit and Byrrh I was told that yes, it did. Fairly sure it didn't. Something called a Big Easy was lovely, thankfully worth every bit of the £12.50.

That the cocktails are worth the investment though is not a surprise - God amongst barmen Brian Silva is responsible for the output of the bar, and even with him not there in person that evening the drinks were great. But you can't just go in for a drink, you need to order food too. And being forced to order, say, a ersatz burger or a £10 plate of uninteresting cheeses just for the license to sit at the bar with a negroni (as I did on two previous occasions) seems terribly unfair, like being forced to order the complete Sky Sports package when all you ever want to watch is the cricket.

So no, I can't recommend Balthazar. There is better food elsewhere, there is cheaper food elsewhere, and there are ways of spending your time and money that will give you a much happier return. We didn't suffer an unmitigated disaster that others did; it just felt anachronistic and awkward, like a 90s-themed restaurant for tourists to go alongside the other novelty cash cow joints of Covent Garden. And I wonder, once the buzz has died down and the tourists and bloggers have each tried it once then got on with their lives, how long it will last.


Balthazar on Urbanspoon

Thursday 25 April 2013

A Wong, Victoria

Under ordinary circumstances, I would applaud anywhere trying to do something different. God knows London already has enough places whose ambition runs no greater than to do what MeatLiquor/Hawksmoor/Polpo are doing, only with bigger profit margins, and genuine innovation is generally to be welcomed. A Wong are, for better or worse, genuinely innovating, and the meal I had last night was, in all kinds of ways, unlike any I've had before.

But innovation comes with associated risks. It's all very well convincing yourself that what the world is missing is a Surströmming Hot Dog stall or a Polish-Mexican Bistro, but overestimate your customer base's capacity for experimentation and you could be staring down the barrel of humiliating failure.

A Wong is not - quite - a failure. But where it is experimental, those experiments are more likely to shock than delight, and where it is more mainstream, it can't compete on price. Take a dish of "Yunan fried cheese", for example. I use the quotation marks deliberately, as had I not been assured by the menu that this was a regional Chinese delicacy, I would have quite naturally assumed it was a block of halloumi cheese. Because that's literally what it tasted like.

But let's assume for the sake of argument that it was, in fact, a regional Chinese delicacy and not a small slice of the kind of thing you can pick up in Asda, because this may explain why they saw fit to serve it accompanied by a small bowl of salt. Now, I don't know about you, but the first thing that comes to mind when eating some halloumi - sorry, "Yunan fried cheese" - is not "if only I had a small bowl of salt to dip this in". It's "blimey this halloumi is salty". This may be how they do it in the Yunan, but I'm not convinced. Not convinced at all.

At the other end of the experimentation scale is something titled 'Seaweed'. Given the price point - £3 - and the unpredictable nature of offerings elsewhere on the menu, you may be forgiven for expecting a little more than a small pile of the kind of sugary deep-fried cabbage available in every Chinese restaurant in the country. But that's exactly what arrived. Don't get me wrong, I love the stuff, but it's hardly cutting-edge.

Everything else fell somewhere between those two extremes. Chengdu "street soft" (sounds painful) tofu was unremarkable other than the fact it was served in an irritating tiny glass bowl and contained too much soy sauce. Century egg had a really lovely flavour but for some bizarre reason was chopped up into tiny wibbly cubes which made it totally impossible to eat with chopsticks. And "pickled" cucumber were less "pickled" than "covered in sugary soy" but were reasonably pleasant.

Far less edible was Gong Bao chicken which was so utterly drowned in Sichuan peppercorns it was like eating a bowl of liquid mercury. Too often Sichuan dishes are toned down in London but the other extreme is just as unpleasant - this was completely unbalanced and pretty careless. And a small "dim sum" taster showed some skill, I just wish they hadn't seen fit to coat one of the dumplings in a layer of frothy spittle; if they thought it was an improvement, they were wrong.

But there were a couple of dishes that - annoyingly for a food blogger trying to make his mind up one way or other about the place - showed flashes of genius. Steamed-to-perfection seabass spiked with ham was, if you ignored the hideous grease-soaked deep-fried pieces of skin on top, proof that someone in the kitchen knew how to properly treat a piece of premium fish. And razor clams, sweet and fresh and studded with dainty discs of salami, were similarly impressive, and with two large specimens for £5, something approaching value.

So I can't, and I won't, totally write off the place. For one thing, plenty of people whose opinions on restaurants are pretty reliable have nothing but good things to say about it so there's always that chance that I somehow chose the ten worst items on the menu or that the kitchen was having a disastrous off-day. There is that chance. But £40 with a couple of beers each in a soulless, beige room plagued with airflow issues (it was like having dinner in a wind tunnel; I found a terrified child trapped in the corridor to the toilets because they couldn't prize the door open) is not an experience I'm in a hurry to repeat. As fearless experiments go, A Wong had me longing for the mainstream.


Photos by Hollow Legs. This post was sponsored by, although I would not recommend A Wong for a date unless you were trying to let someone down gently.

A. Wong on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Sagar, Covent Garden

I've been obsessing too much about the cynical, overpriced or just downright evil recently, and it's not good for me. The more you think about these kinds of things the more they prey on you, and I was worried I had spent so long looking for the very worst that London had to offer I was in danger of losing sight of the best.

So what I needed was a fresh perspective; someone to show me that, after all, there are far more wonderful, generous, hospitable places in London than a brief glance down Kingsway from the office (All Bar One, Café Rouge, Café Nero, Belgo, Pret, Costa, Subway, Eat, another Subway... it's like restaurant death row) would indicate. And so thanks to a humanitarian intervention from a friend we found ourselves first in Notes café and wine bar on Wellington Street (reasonably priced wine, lovely staff) and then Sagar restaurant on Catherine Street.

First, the Asian Elephant in the room - Sagar is a vegetarian restaurant. And my history with vegetarian restaurants, and vegetarian food, and occasionally even vegetarians, hasn't always been happy. But this wasn't just some half-assed quiche and cous-cous peddler, this was a proper South Indian restaurant, a cuisine which has had hundreds of years to learn how to make brilliant food without the use of animal protein, and is responsible for the late and much, much lamented Kastoori in Tooting.

Sagar isn't quite at the level of Kastoori, but then it is cheaper, and it's in Covent Garden, so perhaps their achievement is just as impressive. These Pani Puri could never hope to compete with the extraordinary flavour bombs of Kastoori's Dahi Puri but it was still fun punching a hole through the little pastry casings, filling it with chickpeas and tamarind then downing the whole thing before they collapsed. House pickles were a little on the tame side but I liked their version of lime pickle which was presumably home made, and had a nice bite.

Onion and chilli uttapam (sort of a savoury pancake) didn't skimp on the hot stuff at all, and along with the golden brown onions and refreshing coconut dip and pot of warm chutney, it made for an exciting mix of temperatures, flavours and textures. Without a brave attitude to spicing these things can sometimes taste a bit bland, but there was none of that here.

It's the dosas, such as this Mysore Masala Dosa, that really draw the crowds here though. Inside the golden brown, gently vinegary casing was a generous amount of spicy potato filling that was satisfying - and filling - without being claggy. Having one of these vast sculptures brought to your table is worth every bit of the £7 odd they cost, and as with the uttapam the mixture of textures and flavours was incredibly addictive.

Bakalabath was interesting alright - sort of a cool rice & cucumber thing ordered to offset the chilli heat elsewhere - but there was something about the texture of cold rice and cucumber I couldn't get comfortable with. But Pav Bhaji was much better - a rich vegetable curry, homely and comforting and packing bags of flavour. Adding chicken, or lamb, or prawns would have been a complete waste of time - it is a simple, self-contained, satisfying dish that's good not despite the fact it's had animal products removed, but because it was good to begin with. Sorry to keep banging on about the vegetarian thing, but it's worth comparing the food from Sagar to the pappy, worthy dross from any number of vegetarian cafés around.

And all that, plus a large bottle of Kingfisher each, was bill was £20 a head. I realise it's easy to keep the costs down when you're not serving meat, but there was still enough skill on display here for this to seem like an absolute bargain, and as I say, considering the location it's nothing short of stunning. Buzzing and happy from a lovely time at Sagar, we bounded across the road to Balthazar for a cocktail and ice cream, and were told in no uncertain terms that we couldn't stay unless we were each having a "full meal" - despite having been in twice before for nothing more than a plate of cheese and a bottle of sherry. So I guess the Curse of Covent Garden can strike at any time. But whenever it does, remember there will always be places like Sagar more than happy to restore your faith in humanity.


Sagar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 23 April 2013

34, Mayfair

If you were to make a list of the most glamorous and oversubscribed dining spots in London, what would you include? The Ivy, Covent Garden stalwart and default shorthand for an exclusive celebrity hangout, is a shoo-in. Ditto Scott's in Mayfair, where if you manage to get a booking between the hours of 7 and 9 you are surely something above a mere mortal. There's Sheekey's, favoured of West End stars and a very lucky minority of their audiences, and perhaps also Le Caprice, somewhere that generally hides a good number of influential and famous notables behind its lace curtains.

And all of the above, astonishingly, are run by the same people - Caprice Holdings.

If we are to measure a restaurant's success on its popularity - and I can't think of a better way of doing it - then surely they are doing something right. It's all very well having the best food in Britain but if you can't sell yourself, if you can't make the whole package of visiting a restaurant an "event", something desirable over and above the mere act of eating dinner, then you aren't making the most of what you have. Caprice know this, which is why eating in one of their restaurants means taking part in a theatre of soft carpets, white linen and stylish front of house who dance between the tables like they were born to do nothing else.

You could dismiss the whole enterprise as deeply superficial - and plenty have done just that - were it not for the fact that, by and large, the food from a Caprice Holdings restaurant is worth the effort of snagging a table. I still dream about the Dover sole from Scott's I had almost a decade ago; there are few better places to knock back oysters and champagne than Sheekey's, and now there is 34, which... I was really hoping would be good as well.

House bread involved a sort of cheese/chilli affair with the colour of cornbread, and some lovely salty Sardinian flatbread which I will never not utterly demolish within the first five minutes of being presented with it.

The cocktail list included a good variety of Bloody Marys (a clamato version with oyster leaf was particularly nice), but our favourite was actually a shocking green Apple Bellini, light and perfumed and tasting of very good apples. It may have tasted even better had my stomach not been turned by some dreadful apostrophe abuse on the menu, annoying enough anywhere never mind a smart restaurant in the heart of Mayfair charging £10 per drink. But a self-righteous twitpic made me feel slightly better, and I somehow managed to put the whole sorry incident behind me for the rest of lunch.

A shared starter of artichokes, anchovy and punterella salad was bursting with flavour and didn't last long. The great big chunks of artichokes were doused in a light citrus mayonnaise of some kind, "punterella" (I think they meant puntarella) added crunch and bitterness, and the little smoked anchovies - as long as you got a forkful of everything at once - balanced it out with umami and seasoning. Pretty as a picture, too.

Lobster Thermidor omelette was huge, rich, and not particularly attractive (why not fold it in half on the plate? It may look a little less like a cowpat) but had enough chunks of lobster in to justify the £20 and would be the ideal hangover food if you were the kind of person that has £20 to spend on hangover food.

The burger though, was all kinds of wrong. Perhaps I shouldn't have assumed that by not specifying either Barkham Blue or Mayfield cheeses that it would arrive with no cheese at all, but honestly, who serves a beef burger dry? The truffle fried egg, ordered out of sheer curiosity, was topped with a few rubbery sheets of preserved truffle (horrid), the relish on the side was very... familiar (I doubt if you'd opened a jar of similar from Sainsbury's you'd have been able to tell them apart) and the bun was chalky and dry and completely unsuitable. The beef was good, with a lovely note of charcoal, but short of separating it from the rest of the car crash and pretending it was a steak haché (which I ended up doing), it was wasted.

So 34 can't do burgers. OK, fine. But fries were decent, and I did like the look of the steaks being prepared on the grill, and the man dutifully shovelling coal onto it like a steam train driver, so I'm not about to dismiss the whole operation because my particular area of obsession was a bit of a letdown. I'm sure I could have ordered better. But then again, perhaps in a restaurant charging £20 and up for a main course, it shouldn't be possible to order badly?

A raspberry pistachio sundae went some way to putting things right; the chunks of freeze-dried raspberries were an interesting addition but it was otherwise a fairly standard affair. And so, overall, I'm not sure 34 is quite worth the eyebrow-raising amount of money they charge, when all they really are doing is serving solid food in a nice room. Of course, that's all any Caprice Holdings restaurants are doing most of the time, and look how popular they all are - we had a nice time, the staff are incredibly well-drilled and the surroundings (and the toilets) are of the highest standards. All this glamour, and fuss, and money, for me, just needs to have more to recommend from the food to justify it all. But then, what do I know. The place was packed.


I was invited to review 34

34 on Urbanspoon

Thursday 18 April 2013

The Worst Restaurants in London

I know what you're thinking. What's the point of going to the effort of sending me to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in Piccadilly when the resulting post isn't the unqualified calamity you were hoping for? That's just the way the prawn cracker crumbled I'm afraid - Mr Wu's really wasn't all that bad, and in fact given the location, the clientèle and the price point, it acquitted itself rather well. 4/10 isn't a marvellous score by any stretch of the imagination but there is a world of difference between the merely mediocre and the downright awful; between the noble failures and the determinedly dire; between the disappointing and the diabolical. And so by way of an apology for the Chinese Burn that never was, here are my top (or should that be bottom?) five Worst Restaurants in London.

But first, some runners up, and a confession. The only reason Planet Hollywood, Chiquito, Bella Pasta, Garfunkel's, and a number of other lowest-common-denominator chains, ripoffs and ripoff chains aren't on this list is because (thank the stars) I haven't yet been to them. I'm fairly sure they're awful, but unless you're trapped in Gatwick waiting for a delayed long-haul flight, they're very easy to avoid.

Also, although I have never really enjoyed anything I've eaten at Yo! Sushi, Pizza Express, Ask, Zizzi's, TGI Friday's or Gourmet Burger Kitchen, and their ubiquitous presence on our high streets is a source of constant irritation, they each have their fans and deserve at least grudging respect for doing what they do with consistency. The fact that the cardboardy, beige Pizza Express pizzas have spread like a nasty rash all over the country is depressing, but depressing isn't enough to win a spot in the bottom five.

These five restaurants are not merely depressing, or overpriced, or cynical, or unpleasant. The food isn't just disappointing, the décor not merely drab, the service nothing so straightforward as incompetent. They are a special kind of awful, the kind that requires a particular set of variables to work in miserable harmony. Most bad restaurants, remember, soon go out of business; people vote with their feet. For somewhere bad to survive (and even to expand, God help us) needs very specific factors, ranging from a captive or clueless audience (airports, or tourist honeypots) to a glitzy brand or celebrity endorsement. They may also survive by virtue of using the cheapest possible ingredients (Brakes Bros is the go-to supplier for bad restaurants), marked up so ruthlessly that even a half-empty restaurants turns a profit. Ironically, running a bad restaurant takes energy, and thought, and skill. And these are the worst of the worst.

5. Frankie & Benny's

So there was plenty of competition for the fifth place in the list, and in fact I have a horrible suspicion that Frankie & Benny's may not even be the worst nationwide fake Italian-American-themed diner chain. But it earns a spot here because of the time my flight from Gatwick South Terminal was delayed and I slunk reluctantly in hoping the vast, laminated menu held at least one edible item. Well, if it did, I didn't find it. After a 45-minute wait (maybe they had to change the fuse on the microwave), flabby chicken wings came doused in a sickly sweet BBQ sauce that must have come right from the bottom of the Brakes Bros Bargain Bin, and a burger so bland it could have been mistaken for a lump of soft furnishing. I think it cost about £2,000. Something like that anyway.

Yes, there are other chains, maybe no worse and maybe no better than this. But Frankie & Benny's makes this list for what it represents - a vast, utterly charmless, relentlessly expanding chain serving food at investor-friendly markups, who have learned that by inventing a faux-nostalgic backstory and papering the walls with black and white pictures of New Yorkers from the 1930s (who would have laughed out loud had they been presented with anything from the F&B menu even then) they can somehow convince their victims - sorry, customers - that what they are eating somehow constitutes "authentic". Don't be fooled. They are the devil.

Location: All over the bloody place

4. Fire and Stone

It's easy to laugh at Fire & Stone, perhaps too easy. Anywhere that thinks duck hoi sin cheese pizza (I shit you not) is a menu item worth laminating, and that around Christmas time will sell you something involving turkey, brie, cranberry and gravy, is clearly setting itself up as the Frank Spencer of dining experiences. But to dismiss them as an elaborate joke is to ignore the real problem here; namely that with the brazen use of sheer, excruciating, pointless novelty for the sake of novelty they are convincing hapless diners that, against their better judgement, they really do want to eat a pizza topped with guacamole and roast potato and what's more, said guacamole and roast potato pizza is somehow an improvement on the status quo.

Proper pizza is a wonderful thing, as anyone who's ever eaten one from Donna Margherita in Battersea, Santa Maria in Ealing, Franco Manca in Brixton or the Pizza Pilgrims truck in Soho will tell you. It doesn't need messing about with, it doesn't need improving. It's almost as perfect a foodstuff as has ever existed, which is why they've been making it in Naples with a recipe pretty much unchanged for hundreds of years. The arrogance of anywhere that looks at an honest, beautiful margherita pizza and thinks "you know what? I wonder if we dump whatever we have in the fridge on this we can convince some witless tourists it's the way things are headed? Also, swap the base for semolina flour - I know it tastes of Lego but it's way more difficult for the chefs to cock up". I really do not like Fire & Stone.

Location: Covent Garden, Spitalfields, Oxford, Portsmouth and Westfield

3. Rainforest Café

Many "family-friendly" restaurants fall into the same trap. They spend so long worrying about themes and distractions and ball pools and paper hats and free crayon sets to keep the kiddies from getting bored and tearing the place up, that by the time it comes to the food, all their energies have already been spent. Rainforest Café has that problem, too, but because their budget is so many times bigger than other places, the Grand Canyon-sized gulf between the ludicrous animatronic animals and water displays and the - for want of a better word - crap that comes out of the kitchen is even more jarring.

Actually, you can probably find equally bad food elsewhere - the sad, greasy cowpat of a quesadilla was upsetting bordering on tragic, but I bet there's no better at Chiquito, and I'm sure the burger at Garfunkels is very much of the same ilk as the dry, rubbery discs of mystery meat inside sweet sesame seed buns at the RC - but dear lord the prices. That quesadilla - just cheese and vegetables in a thin case that had all the personality of a sheet of greaseproof paper - was £15.60; a toffee and banana crepe £6.95; a plain Caesar salad an astonishing £14.40. The markups, for these are clearly very cheap ingredients, must be some of the highest in London, and only a trickle of harassed parents and their offspring must be enough to keep the place afloat. Which is just as well, as on my visit half the restaurant was roped off and dark. Perhaps it's a sign it's not much longer for this world. We can but hope.

Location: Piccadilly

2. The Hard Rock Café

The only thing more wretched than the experience of eating at Hard Rock Café is the fact that it's always so popular. Every time I pass this place on the bus it's had a queue out of the door, which even if you assume that nobody ever goes back (and I think it's a fairly safe assumption), that's still pretty staggering.

If there was something - anything - about the place that would justify even the most cursory interest then I might begin to be able to get my head around it, but no - I do not have a single nice word to say about the place. It's hateful. We were served gloopy overcooked ribs in cheap sauce, a burger so inedibly cremated it actually made me laugh out loud, and then were presented with a bill that wouldn't have looked unreasonable for lunch at the Ledbury. Given its international brand and stratospheric prices, you'd be justified in thinking that maybe the décor was worth a visit, but all the cases of memorabilia looked like they had seen better days, and were of pretty marginal interest to even the most rabid rock and roll fan (a guitar Adam Clayton played. A couple of times. Woopie-do), and the bathrooms looked like a bomb had hit them. Where does the money go? It doesn't bear thinking about.

Location: Piccadilly

1. Aberdeen Steak House / Angus Steak House / Scotch Steak House

Nobody quite knows the distinction between these three near-identical but for some reason differently named restaurants. As far as I can gather, Aberdeen Steak House and Angus Steak House are owned by the same company, while Scotch Steak House split a little while ago from the main group and decided to forge its own path selling, er, exactly the same food as the others. So who knows. And who cares, because all you need to know is that, for more reasons than I have time to list here, they are a collection of the very worst restaurants in London, and most likely Britain, and very possibly the world.

Oh go on then, just a small list. The décor is battered and aged, either very nearly falling apart or very actually fallen apart. Staff are so uninterested and chippy they may as well be working in a Post Office, and manage the very impressive feat of doing a whole evening's service without looking anyone - least of all each other - in the eye. The food is terrifying - mealy, bruised steaks that taste of blood and liver, frozen chips, tinned mushrooms and a list of unfortunate 70s classics like prawn cocktail and ("our famous") melted Camembert made by people who neither know nor care what they're doing.

And for this bitterly miserable experience, with absolutely nothing to recommend it whatsoever, you'll pay a small fortune. And you'll leave feeling broken and dejected, bankrupt in every sense of the word, and not a little queasy. I have never known anywhere to suck the joy out of eating to quite such a degree - it's like having dinner in a gulag; completely and utterly devoid of hospitality and warmth and everything a restaurant should be. So while Hard Rock and Rainforest Café and all the others listed above are bad - very bad indeed - there still is nowhere to rival the sheer catastrophic, diabolical awfulness of Aberdeen Angus. A most worthy "winner".

Location: Not telling. It's for your own good.

Thanks to Abandon Spoon for the Christmas Pizza picture, and Shit London for the brilliant Aberdeen Angus lighting failure picture.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Mr Wu's, Piccadilly

I'm afraid this post is going to disappoint a whole lot of you. Mr Wu's is an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet near the Trocadero, populated mainly by bewildered tourists, and as such you'd think would tick every box in the "crappy restaurant" checklist. There are very few all-you-can-anything operations in the world that strive to the very highest standards of service and quality, and the likelihood of my evening at Mr Wu's being a catalogue of hilarious disasters was presumably why it was voted the winner of the Where Next poll.

I know, too, that plenty of people have had bad meals at Mr Wu's - the user review sites are full of stories of grim service and grimmer food, and if we'd left the place clutching our stomachs and screaming blue murder it wouldn't have been a wholly unexpected turn of events.

But instead - instead - what if I told you that the welcome and the service at Mr Wu's was friendly and efficient? That I was allowed to save a space for a couple of friends who were slightly delayed and brought bottles of ice-cold Tsingtao while I waited? And that - brace yourselves - the food itself, whilst occasionally very very odd, was usually edible and in one memorable case actually quite nice? Believe me, I'm as surprised as anyone.

First job, once everyone had arrived, was to troop up from our basement table and load our plates. And I'll say this for Mr Wu's - there's no shortage of options. With a commendably liberal attitude to what constitutes a "Chinese" buffet, we were presented with onion rings, chips, paella, Thai fish cakes, mayonnaise, taramasalata (I think... well, it was pink. Could have been Marie Rose) and God knows what else, vast amounts of each, all waiting patiently under heat lamps.

Though tempted for a second to go for some kind of spring roll and taramasalata paella, I eventually decided that this would be beyond what would be reasonably expected, and ended up with a (still somewhat leftfield) arrangement of sweet & sour fishcakes of some kind, some crispy seaweed (I can't help it, I love that stuff), a bit of lemon chicken so lurid yellow it looked like it would have glowed in the dark, and (for balance you understand) a bit of stir-fried cabbage. Oh, and a chicken wonton.

And some noodles. And a bit of roast pork.

And a couple of prawn crackers.

OK so it's not exactly the kind of thing you'd get at Hakkasan, but people never eat normal food combinations at buffets. In the same way that while staying at a hotel you'll happily stack up digestive biscuits, Dairylea segments, melon balls and a raspberry Pop Tart and call it breakfast, surely the most obvious option at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet is to throw together some of the most bizarre ingredients you can find and see how it all pans out. At the time, believe it or not, I thought the plate of food I'd come up with was a fairly conservative affair - I saw someone with nothing but a vast pile of sweet and sour pork balls on their plate, and another that had just taken one spoonful of every different type of carbohydrate - rice, noodles, pasta AND chips. Together.

So, the taste test. I'll start with the bad - and lemon chicken was very bad indeed. I've already mentioned the colour of the thing, but the flavour was even more startling, like they'd covered the poor bird in the coating from a melted Solero ice-cream. But if Solero Chicken wins the Worst Item award, a wonton that tasted like a pellet of fish food wrapped in deep-fried newspaper wasn't far behind; the "Thai" fishcakes were an engineering project of sugar and red food colouring; and there's a special place in hell for whoever came up with "Tofu soup", utterly devoid of flavour but thickened with just enough cornflour to successfully evoke a bowl of fresh spit.

Of course, there were always going to be some unpleasantness in an all-you-can-eat buffet near Piccadilly. The surprise was the stuff we found which was edible. Crispy seaweed is literally identical everywhere you get it and that's not a bad thing, ditto prawn crackers. But the fried noodles weren't too greasy and had a nice bite, the spring rolls likewise weren't completely revolting and were at least not drenched in grease like they often are, and most unexpectedly of all, some pork char siu was actually quite nice, tender and well-seasoned and with a presumably wholly unnatural but nevertheless attractive scarlet smoke ring.

And it was thanks to the presence of just enough that was edible, combined with the just-good-enough service, combined with the just-cheap-enough prices, that we left Mr Wu's feeling not completely ripped off. Mass-produced, hormone-pumped gunk it may for the most part be, but if you go to any all-you-can-eat buffet near the Trocadero and expect anything BUT mass-produced, hormone-pumped gunk then you're only going to end up disappointed. And for just over £10 per person, with one beer each, it's certainly got a jump on Aberdeen Angus, Hard Rock, Rainforest Café and who knows how many other truly cynical tourist traps in those parts. Mr Wu's is not a good restaurant. It's not an ethical, or healthy, or attractive restaurant. But it is at least an honest restaurant. And that'll do.


Mr Wu on Urbanspoon