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 caf├ęs 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.

OK, there were some things that weren't terrible. Sesame cucumber was very enjoyable, and presented very nicely. Gyoza were ("can I take that plate away?") properly fried on one side and contained a good, moist, porky filling. And ("is everything OK with your gyoza?") the hirata buns were good, but still not as good as the ones from Yum Bun or Bao London, and considering Ippudo invented the damn things that's not a particularly strong endorsement.

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.


Ippudo London on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

Don't go to Japan then or your head will explode. You're a dick.

Chris Pople said...


Richard Dixon said...

My heart sinks a little. Their bog-standard ramen I had in NYC is one of the highlights of my year. Is London developing the Shake Shack effect whereby any global expansion cocks up? Might have to try Bubba Gump just in case...

Mr Noodles said...

I don't wanna be a food-arse about this, but Ippudo didn't invent the hirata bun. The gua bao , as the original is called, is a Fujian Chinese / Taiwanese creation that has been ever so slightly adapted and renamed by Ippudo.

Chris Pople said...

Richard: Steady on, there's no need for Bubba Gump under any circumstances!

Noodles: I'll bow to your knowledge, but I was informed by Bao (streetfood) et al that the only place you can get an ACTUAL Hirata bun was Ippudo. Everywhere else they're gua bao.

Anonymous said...

Mr noodles is totally correct, all Ippudo did was slightly tweak the Bao and then name it after their head chef.

It's typically common to hear shouts of welcome when you walk into Ippudo in Japan. Of course it's different to what we're used to but it's very much a part of Japanese culture and I think they do well to highlight their authentic roots as best as they can. That's a selling point for them. I also think it's weird to complain about having too Japanese an experience in a Japanese chain serves Japanese food.

It could be worse they could have Hentai in the loo like flesh and buns.

Chris Pople said...

Anon: It's not the welcome I objected to (after all this happens at Shoryu, Kanada-Ya and Sasuke, and probably many more I've been to and loved, here and in Japan) but the forced, over the top nature of it. And half the staff weren't Japanese and I got the impression they didn't really know what they were saying. I don't think all the parading and screaming and shouting is very Japanese at all, it's theme-Japanese.

Gavin said...

Thank goodness I didn't cross the road to this place after giving up on Kanada-Ya. Think I got lucky with random pick of one of the Korean cafes around the corner.

Anonymous said...

Yes it's theme Japanese for sure. But as you've pointed out their Ramen isn't among the best in town. Reminding people that they are actual, bona fide Japanese chain and playing up to it is smart. Shoving it down people's throats in a theme manner will likely work to get people choosing to eat there despite mediocrity.

Ala Five Guys.

Anonymous said...

I strongly suspect the Ippudo global expansion has negatively impacted on their quality:-

FWIW I was one of the muppets who queued to get into the HK branch when it first opened. The ramen was fairly decent as I recall. About the same level as, say, Bone Daddies but with fewer "twists".

I'm surprised to see such a variety of (disastrous) side dishes on the St Giles menu. The choices were pretty limited in HK but things may have changed in the 3 years since I was last there.

Having recently had some truly dire ramen in Bristol, I may have to try Kanada Ya for a ramen fix sometime in the near future.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth the Bangkok Ippudo (opened recently with much fanfare) was pretty bland to, luckily we're blessed with some genuinely fantastic alternatives here though.

Steelhead said...

We live in Singapore where there is a wide variety of ramen places serving a mix of Japanese expats and trendy local foodies. We have the same issue with the forced themes in Ippudo but as service in Singapore tends to be either supine or shouty it's not that different from most places. But I am very surprised by your food experience. We have a very limited menu but the gyoza have always been some of the best in Singapore, the cucumber salad and the steak salad excellent, the lotus root crisps provide good variety, and the ramen can be cooked to order for chewiness and you can add extras such as nori or more pork and also get more noodles if you are till hungry (or indeed sharing). We still think it's the best ramen we've had in Singapore, and although it's very busy the waiters don't hassle you. A great special recently of spicy blackpork.

Food Grid said...

I read this review just before heading over to the restaurant, so it might have put me in a sceptical mood.. But I agree that the service was really annoying.