The right view in life, according to Buddha's noble eightfold path, is to see through the eye of Buddha with wisdom and compassion. From where I am sitting, all I can see is his bum. Does that count?
I am installed at a shockingly awful table in a back passage at London's newly opened Buddha Bar under Waterloo Bridge. The whole place is a carbon copy of the Paris original, opened in 1996 by Raymond Visan and Thierry Bégué with music by Claude Challe; and since rolled out in Dubai, Beirut, Cairo, Kiev and São Paulo. Everything about it is hyphenated. The space is neo-colonial, Indo-Portuguese, high-camp and Buddha-chic, dominated by a giant, shimmering, silvery, seated Buddha. The food is pan-Asiatic, Japanese-Thai-Chinese-Indian. The music is chill-out, electronic-fusion, techno-ambient-world. And the experience? So far, so-so.
Intoxicants would help, but a Kirin beer (£4.50) is poured into a dishwasher-warm glass, and a bottle of 2005 Crittenden Pinot Noir (£33) plucked from a Latour-Pétrus-Mouton wine list is so warm it is practically mulled. It looks as if it will be up to the food to save the night, although making out what is on the menu will require either night vision or a small pocket torch. The deeply dim mood lighting succeeds only in putting me in a deeply dim mood.
Once illuminated, the menu feels very 90s-déjà vu. Former Nobu Berkeley chef Jordan Sclare has done little to update the usual popular Buddha Bar mish-mash of sushi, sashimi, Thai curry, Vietnamese spring rolls and post-Nobu references (black cod with miso, spicy shrimp tempura and soft-shell-crab rolls).
A mixed sashimi and wakame salad (£9) is a pricey starter, a toss of slightly mangled fish trimmings in a perky, spicy miso dressing. Even pricier is a mingy serve of "Buddha Bar rolls" – a pale concoction of tuna, turbot, salmon and avocado wrapped in cucumber, for £11. They taste of nothing in particular, and with no rice as a filler, fall apart instantly when picked up.
It doesn't get much better, or cheaper. With an average main-course price of £25, I feel like a cheapskate for ordering beef with Thai basil (£14.50), a small dish that anywhere else would be called stir-fried beef and onions. Of the equally modest five-spice-grilled chicken (£14.50), there is no sign.
When you face misfortune, keep your mind tranquil and free from hindrances. I am trying very hard to cherish humility and express uniform kindness, but it is difficult to bathe in Buddha's gaze when you are staring at his bottom in a space frequented only by servers, next to the toilets. It feels disrespectful. (To me. I don't think Buddha worries about things like that, having shaken off his ego.)
Our very sweet Eastern European server comes to clear the table, but still, there is no chicken. It takes another age to arrive and predictably, is not worth the wait, being about as wet, bland and derivative as the latest Coldplay album. This is mass catering, served in the dark.
The one good thing about Buddha Bar was always the music. I can't believe I'm saying this, but it's just not loud enough, barely registering under the noisy enjoyment of Loud Shrieky Girls and Boring Goldman Sachs Boys.
Visan's original vision was to give people a restaurant experience that felt like a nightclub, after which they could still get up and go to work in the morning. It was a clever idea, honed most memorably by Alan Yau at Hakkasan and Yauatcha, but it has become a cliché. Time now for Buddha Bar to reinvent and remix the whole pan-Asian-fusion thing and bring it into line with a new food philosophy and menu. Until then – and I say this with as much wisdom and compassion as I can muster – the best spot here is the mezzanine bar, where you can chill out with intoxicants, tune in to the music and give the food a miss.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Buddha Bar, 8 Victoria Embankment, London WC2,tel: 020 3371 7777. Lunch and dinner daily. Around £130 for two, including wine and service
The crunch brunch: Around Asia on a budget
31 Colston Street, Bristol, tel: 0117 914 1488
Communal tables, open kitchen and a pan-Asian menu, from sushi to satays and salt and pepper squid. Set menus start at £12.50pp for a table for four
The Secret Garden
62 Trongate, Glasgow, tel: 0141 548 1330
Tucked in behind the popular Gate Bar, the Garden specialises in Asian fusion tapas, with Korean grilled beef, chicken laksa and tamarind scallops for £5 to £6 a dish
Cha Cha Moon
15-21 Ganton Street, London W1,tel: 020 7297 9800
Sixteen years after founding Wagamama, Alan Yau is serving up Penang prawn noodles, Singaporean char kway teow and Taiwanese beef noodles at £3.50 a pop
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