Tiger Lil's is burning bright

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The Independent Culture
Tiger Lil's, flame darting from the firepot on its fascia, is to be found at the end of the King's Road, Chelsea. Being a few yards beyond the World's End it features suitably satanic chefs dressed in black with black headcloths who stand behind gas-fired oildrum ovens, conjuring gusts of roaring flame from big black woks. The wooden tables are also plumbed for gas, with little metal pipes that can be connected to what are described on the menu as "steaming firepots", full of hot stock. In these you are invited to cook for yourself the ingredients displayed in large open cabinets. The evening I was there nobody was using the firepots and they were all stacked on shelves at the side of the room.

I got there early, and discovered various disadvantages to the gas plumbing. One was that you can't move the tables, the other is that the piping, let into the floor, created at least one obstruction at floor level I managed to trip over on the way to the Gents. This is obscurely signposted with the letters "MW" crudely carved in wood over a doorway. Through this door there is a staircase leading down to a badly ventilated cellar, in which there is a row of distorting mirrors, followed by an array of doors painted in battleship grey with little combination locks with a dozen buttons to press until you get the right code, none of which can be very reassuring if you happen to have had a couple.

The "M" itself contains the restaurant's most courageous design feature, with cubicles in unplaned softwood fixed with aluminium clamps and a door handle made out of what could be pumice stone. Presumably, however, these slightly alarming depths have been declared all correct by feng shui expert William Speare, who has been through the whole place making sure that its nooks and crannies are arranged auspiciously according to this ancient Chinese tradition.

By the time I had completed these investigations the rest of the party arrived, and our waitress came over the explain the way the restaurant worked. She was called Niki, and should win Best Waitress of the Year Award for elegance and charm. There were four of us, my even more elegant and charming wife, similarly e-and-c step-daughter, and her intelligent and sympathetic boyfriend. My step-daughter had helped me review a Mongolian Barbecue, which operated on roughly the same principle, but dressed up with a lot of guff about Ghengis Khan and his Merry Mongols frying yak burgers on their saddles. At Tiger Lil's, as Niki explained, the inspiration is a street-market in Northern China, where stall-keepers fry things in woks on gas-fired oildrums.

You shovel various chopped-up mixtures of raw vegetables and slices of meat or fish onto a very small plate, take it to one of the Fire Demons, and he will cook it for you in front of your eyes. You are encouraged to go back as often as you like at no extra cost, so any injudicious mixtures are not a total disaster. Niki advised us to experiment with cautious combinations of food, and that she would be bringing us boiled rice and noodles.

We ordered four glasses of draught Budwar and I asked her about the steaming firepots. She said we were welcome to use them, but that the food probably tasted better cooked in the wok. If we wanted her for any reason we had to turn a bamboo mug on the table blue bottom up to attract her attention.

Part of the lark of encouraging customers to queue up and have their food cooked is that lone sex-maniacs and compulsive bores can strike up conversations with those from other tables while they are waiting. Another positive advantage is that half the customers are always standing facing the woks, and provide a floor-show for the other half. That night a party of heavily made-up boarding school girls were in, bent on the rampage, which afforded us considerable entertainment.

When we eventually got over all that, we tottered up to examine the display of food. In the brightly-lit compartments there were, among other things, shaved carrot with Japanese seaweed, three-colour peppers with sesame seeds, watercress with water chestnuts, cloud ear fungus with mushrooms, shooting pulses with corn nibs, green turnip with Chinese cabbage, bok choy with mangetout and bamboo shoots with jade roots, all looking very fresh and delicious. There were also strips of white squid, mussels on the shell, Chinese fish cakes, and mounds of sliced raw chicken, beef, pork and turkey.

There was a tap with constantly running water on top of each of the oil- drums, all the woks are scrubbed out with a hard brush between every order, the Fire Demons are surprisingly friendly and even more surprisingly in possession of their eyebrows, and we returned several times.

A choice of sauces and extra flavours is painted on the back wall behind them, and the unwary should note that not all of these make a good mix. The rice and noodles were excellent, and the best thing I had was squid, mussels and Chinese fishcake with an oyster sauce. The pork came out a bit nobbly and tasteless, and the others complained about the vegetables being either too oily or too spicy.

We then asked for two of the four puddings, tropical ice creams and sorbets served in a lotus flower basket and Choc Pot: tropical and seasonal fruits with a pot of hot melted chocolate. These were definitely disappointing. The flavour of the ice-cream was very artificial, and there was something a bit gloomy about dunking a cocktail-stick kebab of orange, apple and starfruit in not very good melted chocolate.

All the same, dinner for two with two glasses of beer each and a cup of peppermint tea came to a reasonable pounds 32.60 without the tip, and it's a nice noisy night out.


500 King's Road, London SW10 0LE. Tel: 0171 376 5003. Open Monday to Fridays, 6pm to 11.30pm, Saturdays, midday to midnight and Sundays, midday to 11pm. Set price, pounds 11 per person. Access and Visa accepted