Turning Japanese

Soho's noodle bars breathe new life into canteen cuisine
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Modern canteens have never managed to shake off their dubious past: the diet of beef burgers, jumbo sausages and sugar-rich baked beans on offer in school canteens is just the sort you'd expect the officer class to serve its cannon-fodder.

In Japan, they have long done things differently, with a national diet that is restrained, pure and invigorating - and attractive to boot. The noodle bar (memorably celebrated in Juzo Itami's film, Tampopo) seems to me, in particular, everything that a modern fast-food restaurant should be. It's clean and simple and offers food, in the form of broth and pasta, that is cheap, simple to prepare and healthy to eat. It is easy to forget, as you leave one of these places with Zen restored, that what you have just eaten is a canteen meal - yet canteens is really all they are.

It seems impossible that Soho should be able to take another influx of restaurants, but in time-honoured fashion it is becoming the epicentre of London's burgeoning noodle industry. Noodletown, so to speak. It is here, in W1, that the best bars are to be found.

When I set out to write this piece, I was determined to do my best not to mention either branch of Wagamama, the two super-successful noodle bars that have almost single-handedly introduced us to "the way of the noodle". But you can't quarrel with the evidence of the senses; the Wagamamas might be hugely popular but only because they are extraordinarily good. At the older branch by the British Museum, I have recently made a fine new discovery in the form of karo somen - a paste of fish, beans, coconut milk and spices served on a bed of thin white noodles. I suspect it owes as much to Thailand as Japan, but it really is exceptionally fine. The newer Lexington Street version has a longer and wider ranging-menu, and there I chose the ebi kankoku chahan. This do-it-yourself meal consists of a sizzling stone bowl of rice, prawns, and sundry herbs and vegetables, with a raw egg on top; you break this and pour in some miso soup; the steam from the hot bowl cooks the egg and moistens the rice. It scored high on the novelty count, but I think I prefer the simpler noodle dishes, such as tuna men: char- grilled tuna on a bed of stir-fried ramen noodles.

The art, though, of Wagamama is in the detail; nowhere, for instance, does better fruit juices. David Chipperfield, the architect of the Lexington Street restaurant, has worked in Japan, and has learnt a lot in the process. Sparse and clean, his space has what one Zen master has called "the presence of absence". The staff, chic in their urban guerrilla gear, give the impression of actually enjoying themselves.

Those in search of a less self-conscious, more conventional noodle experience, should try Hamine (pictured), a minute's walk from Piccadilly Circus. Five years old and very popular with the Japanese, Hamine claims to be the first noodle bar in London. There are those who say it is also the best. The place is small and crowded and, with white tiles and black Formica tables, as simple as could be. As in Japan, you order your meal at the bar and pay for it upfront, before being directed to a seat. The menu gives little away, although I noticed that the miso ramen - noodles in a soya bean broth with minced pork - was especially popular with the Japanese. In an impressive display, the Japanese woman next door to me managed to down a large bowl of this noodle-soup and another of rice. I was disappointed, though, that she did not slurp her soup; the extra oxygen is said to enhance the taste.

At Hamine, we had a simple fried rice with prawns and vegetables and a fine moyashi soba - a vegetarian noodle and soya soup, which, I have to say, was tastier than its counterpart at Wagamama. If they are not already supplied, make sure to ask for the various condiments on offer, both the green garlic paste and chilli oil had our nasal juices flowing. Hamine is open until 3am most nights of the week and is justly popular with a young, late-night crowd.

Chetin Ismet, the owner of Soba, insists he did not even know of the existence of Wagamama, when his builders began working on his site off Oxford Street. Anyway, he has come up with another sparse, ultra-modern noodle-bar - one which, with its translucent walls of corrugated plastic, long yellow table and fixed wooden benches, is genuinely Japanese in feel. Only the piped pop-music, I thought, detracted from the effect.

Ismet, it turns out, has never been to Japan, and says he got the idea for his restaurant from California. The cooks in the kitchen, however, are all Japanese. My noodle and dumpling soup tasted rather flat and lacked colour - part of the point of this food is that it is meant to look striking. An earlier spicy stir-fry, though, was good and gave an effective kick- start to a long afternoon. Soba, named after the brown buckwheat noodle that is a staple of Japanese cooking, is also marginally cheaper than Wagamama. The fact that you can eat here for around pounds 6 confirms what is anyway obvious: that the lowliest of canteens could afford to cook this sort of food, or perhaps better still, a local equivalent

Hamine, 84 Brewer St, London W1 (0171-287 1318), Mon-Fri 12pm-3am; Sat 12pm-2am; Sun 12pm-12am. Cash only. Wheelchair access.

Wagamama, 10 Lexington St, W1 (0171-292 0990). 4 Streatham St, W1 (0171- 323 9223). Open 7 days a week. Access and Visa cards accepted. No wheelchair access.

Soba, 38 Poland St, Wl (0171-734 6400). Mon-Sat, 12pm-3.30pm, 5.30pm- 11pm. No credit cards accepted. Wheelchair access.