EATING OUT: Zen my brother-in-law arrived

NIPPON TUK; 165 Draycott Avenue, London SW3 1AJ. Tel: 0171 589 8464. Open from Monday to Saturday, midday to midnight. Basic set meal, pounds 9; average a la carte meal, pounds 15 per head. All credit cards accepted

NIPPON TUK: THERE comes a time in the life of every restaurant critic, however naive, when they have to ask themselves when is a restaurant not a restaurant. Nippon Tuk, just round the corner from Bibendum in London's French-occupied South Kensington, hovers in the philosophical no-man's- land between such being and non-being.

In favour of its being classified as a restaurant, one could argue that it has at most five tables, all with high-backed chairs in open ironwork, strung with tasteful Japanese cushions, unusually gracious and polite service, and a lavatory that will to take the aesthete's breath away. It is tiny, and serves both sexes. Its narrow walls are painted in muted Shinto red and it has a discreet black mirror in which men, and I suppose women, can just catch a glimpse of themselves if they lean dangerously far to the right. In front of this mirror, on a shelf behind the exquisite pale oak-seated and lidded lavatory, there is something that might almost be an orchid and a bare, tangled Japanese-style branch of a tree, its base wrapped in Shinto-red adhesive tape. The tiny washbasin, and something else that could be the central heating, are encased in the same pale oak, there is a bar of soap of better quality than any restaurant-goer can deserve, and the towel is thick, dry and fresh.

Against it being classified as a restaurant, Nippon Tuk is really extremely small - not much more than a narrow, glass-fronted passage - and, at the risk of libelling the proprietors, I got the impression that the kitchen is little more than a large cupboard containing a fridge and a microwave. I did not, like my colleagues from the Red Michelin, demand to carry out a full inspection, but that was what it looked like when I peered through the hatch.

Given the nature of the food, which is, as the name suggests, largely Japanese, it could be argued that no more is needed, but the more people arrived to collect takeaways - locally, it said on the menu, they deliver free of charge - the less I was sure. In any case, it was a subject that preoccupied us for most of the evening. I think everything might have been all right if my brother-in-law, a controversial though not usually investigative journalist, had not joined us half way through dinner.

My wife and I got there at about eight, were very graciously received by a member of the three-strong European staff (one of those, I suspect, responsible for the amusing racist pun in the restaurant's name), and were shown the relatively modest menu. We ordered two bottles of beer while we thought about it, and were recommended to try a local brew called Freedom. According to the label it came from Britain's "first micro-brewery", in Fulham. Whether or not this involves Lilliputian brewers and tiny dray- horses I am sure has been dealt with at length by the beer writers, but it was very good and crisp and even.

The choice was between various pieces of nigiri sushi - flavoured rice topped with salmon, tuna, king prawn, smoked salmon, sweet omelette, white fish or sea eel - and maki sushi - the same ingredients wrapped in seasoned rice and in a seaweed roll. Alter-natively, you can have Nippon Tuk house selection, a nine-piece sushi with miso soup; sashimi; an udon noodles meal; or a Japanese-style salad. My wife read it through and told the waiter she noticed that the food had a strong Scandinavian bias. I was still boggling at this when I saw that there was a small appendix of "Smorrebrod", with six different kinds of open sandwich.

I asked for the miso soup and nine-piece sushi, she ordered the udon noodles meal and the Nippon Tuk Combi, which consisted of raw tuna, salmon, white fish and salmon eggs.

I remember reading some time ago that people who make udon noodles believe they can improve their quality by singing to them. The few I fished out of my wife's vegetable stew might possibly have been sung to by Bill Oddie, but suffered from floating in not very good soup - my wife, who is very critical, detected "a cube" - and the vegetables, though fresh, were a bit insipid. My own miso soup I thought was adequate; nothing what-soever wrong with the raw fish and various-shaped wedges of compressed rice. We then settled down to enjoy the mood - a bit, I imagine, like Dien Bien Phu in the days of the French empire, with everyone who came in talking the language of the occupying power. I was proud of the waiters for refusing to speak.

Then my brother-in-law arrived. Was this room all there was? He thought it was bloody fishy, possibly a front for some sinister trade. Har har har. Exhaling a real aura of old-fashioned Fleet Street glamour he smoked his way through a pack of cigarettes, drank so many glasses of wine the waiter said it would be cheaper to have the bottle, and kept us roaring with laughter for the rest of the evening. He didn't really want to eat, he said, which was probably a good thing as he left most of his Nippon Tuk house selection for us to finish - we were both still feeling quite hungry - and then started off on more criticism of the restaurant. Why was it spelt "Tuk" instead of "Tuck"? Was this some obscene Japanese pun? Why had the nice waiter put his coat on and gone home? What was all this about "unlimited green tea"?

I thought I ought to stick at the serious restaurant reviewing - I was, as I say, still not completely full - and we ordered a deftly unfrozen Danish apple tart and still frozen sweet chestnut ice-cream, neither of which was really worth writing home about. I suppose we should have tried the Danish Tuk: the waiter swore that the proprietor of the fashionable restaurant opposite, a prominent Copenhagen socialite, gets his sandwich there every lunchtime.

Subtracting the bill my brother-in-law ran up for wine and coffee, the Tuk for two of us came to pounds 41 without the tip.

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