Chinoise, London

One minute it's Italian, next it's got a French name and is serving Chinese food. But will Chinoise be just another sitting duck - albeit a sizzling one?
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

You walk down the street, and suddenly the bank on the corner is a wine bar. The shoe shop turns into a Starbucks. The bookshop becomes a mobile-phone centre.

OK, fine. I'm an urban creature. I'm keeping up. I'm not one of those who can't move with the times. I'd much rather invest my money in a wine bar than a bank anyway.

But it's a bit rum when restaurants start changing their name and game on an annual basis. Where would we be if the River Cafe girls had gone Thai after 12 months of risotto and bruschetta, or the Ritz had decided after a year that it was so over afternoon tea?

Until recently, Rebecca Mascarenhas, better known as Saint Rebecca of Barnes for her work in bringing edible food to the good people of SW13 through restaurants such as the long-serving Sonny's, has been a player of some consistency.

Around this time last year, Mascarenhas took over the Italianate Lemon Thyme restaurant - in the nether regions of Barnes - and converted it into Bibo, a smart but not too smart split-level Italian with limestone floors, black-and-white Italian photographs, charming Italian staff, a very Italian chef in a big puffy hat, and a selection of crowd-pleasing pizza and pasta.

Now, seemingly overnight, the place has morphed into Chinoise, a smart but not too smart split-level Chinese with limestone floors, Oriental-themed walls, charming Chinese staff, a very Chinese chef in a neat little white cap, and a selection of crowd-pleasing stir-fries and barbecue meats.

Mascarenhas and partner/manager David Li, fresh from Memories of China in Ebury Street, have installed Yam Ying Yuen from the Oriental restaurant in the Dorchester as head chef, so now it's chow instead of ciao, and SW13 seems to be loving it.

As you might expect, all the usual Anglo-Chinese favourites are here, from sesame prawn toast to spring rolls and sizzling beef. As you might not expect, there is also a goodly selection of homely regional dishes, such as steamed minced pork with salty fish, ma po tofu, stewed lamb with bamboo skins and red-oil poached dumplings.

In the same vein, the ubiquitous prawn crackers are supplemented by a far more interesting and appropriate little bowl of crunchy hot and sweet Chinese pickled vegetables.

So they're trying to do a little more than just give the people what they want. What the people want, in any Chinese restaurant in Britain, is generally anything that starts with the words crispy or sizzling. They certainly get that, what with the crispy aromatic duck, crispy seaweed and crispy pork, which suggests a kitchen more Sichuan/Beijing than Cantonese.

But my dinner kicks off with a non-crispy, non-sizzling mustard leaf, tofu and sliced pork soup (£4) which has the honest, no-nonsense taste of the "house soup" a Chinese restaurant will offer its Chinese diners. The broth is light, flavours are deep and it actually feels as if it is doing you good as it goes down.

One of the good things about turning an Italian restaurant into a Chinese restaurant, is that you end up with a lot of Italian wines, which have always struck me as being particularly Chinese friendly. A bargain-priced Prunotto Barbera d'Asti 2001 (£16.95) was probably made with a Piemontese hare stew in mind, but it works just as well with a nice slurpy braise of slow-cooked pork belly with preserved vegetables (£8.50). The meat practically dissolves on the tongue; the flavours are fat and smug.

By comparison, a dish of Cantonese roast duck (£7.50) - I know I keep ordering it, but it's such a test of the kitchen and, OK, I am on a never-ending search for Cantonese roast-duck nirvana - is a barely acceptable example, in no way exceeding its brief. The flesh tastes tired and the skin has been soggied by a gratuitous sauce that turns it into Chinese take-away.

Next, wok-fried e-fu noodles with crab are disastrous, the noodles woefully overcooked into wet knitting wool, with very little, thankfully, of the murky tasting crab. What is particularly alarming is that the noodles have been chopped into short lengths. The whole idea of e-fu long-life noodles, traditionally served on feast days and special occasions, is that the longer your strands, the longer you will live. If there is no review next week, at least you will know why.

Rice is good - no, very good - and a platter of gai laan (Chinese broccoli) and bok choy cabbage with oyster sauce (£5) has the chopsticks flying - the greens still lively and full of snappy flavour. Servings are on the small side, so those initially reasonable-looking prices creep up and get you in the end, but it doesn't seem to bother the loud crowd of chopstick-wielding twosomes and happy families or the non-stop take-home orders.

To build any sort of food culture in a city or country, a modicum of continuity is required. I think Chinoise lacks the superior variety, precision and elegance of really good Chinese dining, but it's good enough, warm enough and well-run enough to be packed out for, let's say, the next 12 months. At least.

13 Chinoise 190 Castelnau, London SW13, tel: 020 8748 3437. Open for lunch Wednesday to Sunday and for dinner daily. Around £70 for two including wine and service

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

Second helpings... Other face-changing restaurants

Watersreach at the Golden Tulip Waters Reach, Trafford Park, Manchester, tel: 0161 868 1900 What was Rhodes & Co is now plain old Watersreach. But while the newly de-spiked Man U supporter may have moved on, it's business as usual at this swish, crowd-pleaser of a restaurant right next to Old Trafford. Chef Ian Morgan remains, with an eclectic menu that runs from Manchester corned beef hash with fried egg to lightly steamed halibut with crab ravioli and champagne cream.

Real Greek Souvlaki & Bar 140 St John Street, London EC1, tel: 020 7253 7234 What was the Clerkenwell branch of the once far-reaching Fish! empire is now turning out Britain's very best souvlaki, thanks to Theodore Kyriakou and Paloma Campbell. With its groovy bar feel and addictive ouzo-based cocktails, the place is a magnet for fun-loving locals who come for the lamb and pork souvlaki, giant oven-baked beans, baby octopus and divine Greek bread.

East@West 13 West Street, London WC2, tel: 020 7010 8600 What was West Street, with its Western global food, is now the home base for Australia's mistress of spice, the flamboyant Christine Manfield. Expect an extraordinarily confident selection of Asian-inspired dishes in flavour-packed small "tastes", running from black pepper chicken tea with watercress and enoki mushrooms to yellowfin tuna tartare with nori omelette, avocado and wasabi flying fish roe.