Causing quite a stir in Soho

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The Independent Culture
WOK WOK

10 Frith Street, London W1V 5TZ. Tel: 0171 437 7080. Open Monday to Wednesday from noon to 11pm, Thursday to Saturday from noon to midnight and Sunday from 5.30pm to 10.30pm. Three-course set menus from pounds 11.50. Average a la carte price, pounds 12 per person. Major credit cards accepted

Almost every Saturday morning, we have to steer through delicate negotiations with our daughter, Florence, about where we eat the weekend pizza. At the moment we adults have the upper hand, but with two-year- old Sidney quickly developing sturdy independence and the ability to voice it, I can see that the day will soon come when their choice will dominate. Pizza Hut is the treat they crave, while we prefer the more sedate Pizza Express, for all its lack of balloons. The one place we will not go to is Deep Pan Pizza, even if the two little terrors throw their worst possible tantrums simultaneously. This absolute veto is based on one single experience in my case, and two in the case of their forgetful father. Maybe this is unfair, but once was enough as far as I am concerned; I just cannot stomach the idea of another one of those miserable apologies for pizza, even for the sake of my little darlings who were, as far as I recall, rather taken with all the video screens and other paraphernalia that surrounded them.

So it was with some misgivings that I agreed to review the latest venture from the powerhouse that created the Deep Pan Pizza. Wok Wok, on its plum site in the centre of Soho (at a crossroads with the media eateries Dell'Ugo opposite on one side, and Soho Soho on the other), is, I am told, to be the first of a new nationwide chain of wokeries. "Could be good news, but then again ..." I mused, as I trotted down Frith Street, "... it's by no means impossible to turn out a perfectly vile stir-fry. If they can drag the pizza down to the pits, what might they manage with the contents of a wok?"

My very first impression, as I wandered through the door, was that this was a very stylish, very now, very Soho sort of place. In other words, not at all what I was expecting, and with no immediate giveaway notes of chain potential. I've scribbled "Mondrian meets Great Wall of China" in my notes, but in terms of decor, Mondrian wins hands down as great clean blocks of rich colour meet bright white walls. I hadn't booked, and arrived just in the nick of time. There were no tables left, but for a single diner like myself, a seat at the long bar was more fun anyway. For a start, there was a perfect view of the great wall of woks, all five of them, manned by natty young chefs in pert little black caps. To my left I could vet diners as they entered, making sure that they met the stringent requirements of a fashionable London dining room. They did too, all twenty- and thirtysomethings, dressed for the most part in black, with the occasional strong block of colour for light relief. The few diners over 40 stood out like beacons, the male ones inevitably sporting ponytails and bald pates. The staff are as style-conscious as the customers, in chic streamlined black cotton trouser suits, with high collars, and "wok wok" discretely embroidered on the arm and the back of the yoke.

The relatively short menu draws on the cuisines of the Orient, from China to Thailand and Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan - all those countries linked by the holy trinity of garlic, ginger and chilli. On principle, I avoided chicken satay and spring rolls, and reluctantly passed over Thai rare beef salad and nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice), two particular preferences of mine, in favour of another brace of old favourites: Thai fish cakes, which were, I think, the first thing I ever tasted in a Thai restaurant, almost 20 years ago, followed by seafood laksa, a take on Singapore's silky, sensuous coconut and slippery noodle soup.

To while away the brief wait as the wok bank revved up into full gear (actually the fish cakes emerged from the deep-fryer, but that's by the by), I sipped an invigorating fruit punch, a liquid fruit salad of mango, banana, orange and heaven knows what else, guaranteed to make you feel virtuous in the most indulgent manner.

The fish cakes turned out to be rather chewy in a fairly pleasant way, the sweet chilli sauce adding zip where the fish cakes failed. The best thing on the plate was the "cucumber pickle", a brisk, sweet-sharp salad of marinated cucumber with slivers of red onion, coriander and strips of mild red chilli. I could have eaten that until the cows came home. No need, however, as an enormous bowl brimming with my laksa soup, surveyed from the peak of its noodle heap by a brooding langoustine, arrived just as I was wondering what happened next. This was sheer heaven, with its aromatic coconut broth sliding ambrosially down, furls and folds of soft fine noodles, all interspersed with morsels of sweet seafood - tiddly orange mussels, tender strips of squid, giant prawns, some sort of white fish and miniscule queenie scallops that tasted of nothing much at all. Scallops notwithstanding, it was a joy of a bowlful.

Moderation was thrown out to the taxis and traffic jams of Frith Street. I scooped and slurped my way to the very bottom. No room for pudding, but they don't count for much here anyway. As minimal as the cool, rectangular plates and the metal cannisters that hold the disposable wooden chopsticks (no cutlery to be seen, though I dare say if you have the temerity to ask, they could provide a fork or two), the dessert list contains just four items: seasonal fruit, sorbets and ice-creams, natural yoghurt mousse and, for those who crave something a mite less pure, a coconut creme brulee.

I stand impressed by Wok Wok. As a one-off, it's a pretty good attempt at a funky, fun, modern Asian restaurant. Not as exciting, foodwise, as a first-rate Thai or Japanese restaurant, but then, it doesn't set out to match that sort of expertise. The big question is, can they main-tain this standard, or at least something close, when (if) they launch out of Soho and into the provinces? I do hope they can, and if any of the planners happen to be reading this, can we have a branch somewhere within easy reach of Daventry, please? Then Florence and Sidney's days at Pizza Hut may be numbered.

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