Just off Carnaby Street, the latest venture from the capital’s leading oriental restaurateur, Alan Yau; it’s as smart and elegant a budget venue as you could ever wish for, and – at least in the early days – offers astonishing value.
Some people think it’s vulgar to think about the cost of a meal, but we have never seen how you can really leave cost out of the critical equation. A perfectly middle-of-the-road restaurant can be really worth knowing about if its prices are especially reasonable; one that’s merely a bit dull, on the other hand, can seem positively odious if it ramps up its prices towards the stars.
The issue is especially acute with new restaurants. Fairly or not, Gordon Ramsay, for example, has a reputation for charging low prices in the early days, when ‘the critics are in’, and then hiking them up shortly afterwards. Other restaurants, contrariwise, can be criticised for being only too anxious to hike up their prices – Mark Hix’s new place, in Farringdon, made a full-price opening before it was, in our view, really ready, when charging half-price would have been more appropriate.
The pricing issue, and which way it cuts, is most starkly apparent in the latest opening from the great ‘hidden’ (low-key) force on the London restaurant scene, Alan Yau. He may ‘only’ do oriental restaurants (so far, anyway), but the founder of Wagamama and Busabai Eathai has had a profound influence on the capital’s chain-scene, in addition to establishing two of the best, most fashionable and most lucrative top-end Chinese franchises in town, Hakkasan and Yauatcha.
His latest chain-prototype, in the emerging culinary zone off Carnaby Street, shows his heritage: it’s effectively a cross betwen Wagamama and Busaba Eathai, with that touch of je ne sais quoi you expect from the man behind Hakkasan. The design is smart and elegant, with an unusual feature; on sunny days a whole wall opens up to reveal a courtyard occupied by al fresco diners. (We’re told, though, that it can get pretty noisy inside, even in the early-evening.)
What’s most odd about the place is the prices. All the menu choices – which include noodle and dim sum dishes, but no puddings or coffee – are currently being charged at the same price (£3.50). So, if you choose right, you can eat astonishingly well for very little money. A generous plate of duck (served in the same style as you might traditionally have in pancakes) with very good noodles was a simply great dish, and at £3.50 it was an amazing ‘steal’ too. The same sum spent on spring rolls was not such an obvious bargain – as the price is not so very different from the Chinatown norm – but quality was still very high. There is the occasional dud, too – including, on our visit, dim sum – which would be a dud at any price.
But the big difficulty here is the pricing question. We’re told that the everything-for-£3.50 policy will last as long as the economics allow it to. So how long is a piece of string, exactly? Who cares? Just get on down to Carnaby Street before they stop selling those duck ‘n’ noodles for £3.50 a time.