Explore China, down by the river

Forget takeaways. Ken Hom plans to change our views of Asian dining with his Yellow River restaurant and café chain
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Ask gourmets for their favourite cuisines in the world, and Chinese generally features in the top three. It is not always easy to appreciate this choice when faced with the grease and glop of the average high-street takeaway, or the poorly translated menus and impatient waiters of Soho's Chinatown. As other, lesser cuisines have moved out of the ghettos of "ethnic eating", Chinese food has somehow never been given the accessible, quality treatment of a Pizza Express or a Wagamama.

Ask gourmets for their favourite cuisines in the world, and Chinese generally features in the top three. It is not always easy to appreciate this choice when faced with the grease and glop of the average high-street takeaway, or the poorly translated menus and impatient waiters of Soho's Chinatown. As other, lesser cuisines have moved out of the ghettos of "ethnic eating", Chinese food has somehow never been given the accessible, quality treatment of a Pizza Express or a Wagamama.

Step in Ken Hom, a great populariser and mediator between East and West. Two London branches of his new chain, Yellow River, have already opened in Canary Wharf and Chiswick, and he plans to set up one a month this year, from the south coast to the Midlands. His format is to have a smart, calm restaurant serving authentic Chinese dishes, including regional food such as spicy Sichuan and hearty Northern, and a relaxed café with pan-Asian food for the masses.

The entrance stairway of the Canary Wharf branch swept Gordon and I up in to rooms that crossed Bertolucci's Imperial China with updated-Fifties funky pastels and ironic post-Communist trimmings. Lanterns like ribbed melons floated above the gracious curves of a plum silk wall while Hom's face smiled down from the wall like Chairman Mao on ecstasy, and long, staggered strips of mirror multiplied a brisk waiter into a marching column. "Unite and eat! Strength through eating!" read a slogan.

We first tried the upstairs restaurant where the menu, entirely in English, was a testament to the temptations of Chinese food: sizzling, crackling, spicy and fragrant. We shared a plateful of six hot starters, including a braised aubergine that was rich and velvety, and dumplings which were plump with pork and prawn. I conducted a desperate chopstick search through the crispy "seaweed" to discover the advertised caramelised walnuts - how delicious that sounded - but with no luck.

The choice for the main course was almost impossible because everything sounded so good - which it often doesn't, at least on the page. Without interfering, advice is on hand: when I picked the Shanghai braised pork, the waiter unobtrusively warned me that the meat would be fatty because it came from the belly. Yes! Just as it should be. The texture was soft enough to cut with a chopstick and the sauce darkly promising, but it did not prove to be quite good enough to finish.

We both wanted to hog another dish with slippery, white cubes of bean curd, pure and simple, in a deep-red sauce that had been reduced to a glistening stickiness. The glossy stir-fried vegetables were just at that perfect point when raw becomes crisp. The fresh steamed ginger chicken, though, was a disappointment. It could have been one of those exquisitely subtle Chinese dishes, cooked with a feather-light touch, but instead was dull, and the squeaky meat did not meld with the sauce.

Some Chinese food reveals a whole new continent to your taste-buds. Not here. So saying, the Yellow River restaurant is well-packaged, has an undoubted élan, and I certainly would be interested to try everything on the menu: authentic Chinese food seldom feels so accessible.

The downstairs café has a specially designed children's menu, so I returned with my friends Diana and Iain, their 16-month-old son Ted and 11-year-old Ellie. Diana keeps a list of child-friendly restaurants in her Filofax and instantly approved of the highchairs and pushchair-parking facilities. Eating our pepper-spicy prawn crackers, we felt washed over by the lively buzz of the place, but this was partly due to a huge screen of MTV, and music that was more foreground than background. Still, it could cover any random Björk-style baby shrieks.

The café menu was a greatest-hits compilation of the East, from won tons to Thai tom yum. Iain devoured his dim sum with relish while Diana and I picked our way through an Oriental platter with more mixed feelings. The prawn toasts were juicy, the fried chicken, tempura and Thai fish cakes crisper and less greasy than is often the case, but the satay's marinade was far too sweet and it all felt a bit safe.

The best main course was the most unusual: a Vietnamese fish dish with a sweet, crispy top that roared with flavoursome heat. The Sichuan aromatic duck was, as Diana put it, "a bit conveyor-beltish"; the Thai chicken green curry was decidedly blanded-down. Where was the chilli, the fragrance? Where were the layers of flavour? A café for the quick bite, not the long savour.

Ellie and Ted's children's meal boxes - £6.95 for three courses - were in those lacquered, compartmentalised trays you get in Japanese restaurants. Ted took to noodles like Pollock to paint and the surroundings were soon decorated with splatter pictures. On his social circuits of the room, he was greeted by relaxed waiters with fortune cookies: they were genuinely friendly rather than merely tolerant.

Ellie was most keen on her sweet-and-sour pork, which came in a light, crisp batter and had a sauce that was not just sweet but balanced with some acidity. Overall, she thought the boxes had "too little of too many things" but gave the place 7 out of 10.

So, what was the overall verdict? The café is around £20 per adult, without wine, and you would go for fun rather than remarkable food or a bargain. Diana and Iain would go again with the children in tow.

At around £30 a head for three courses, without wine, the restaurant is not cheap, but it is more sophisticated than other chains. There will be some, myself included, who would prefer to travel with their palates through riskier, less stylish venues, to try and find greater culinary rewards. But I suspect that, over the next couple of years, Yellow River will become a fixture in larger cities, and provide easy-to-reach foothills to the breathtaking mountain of authentic Chinese cooking. A similar combination of fast café and modern restaurant is opening up next to the Ritz in Piccadilly (called China House and the Orient Restaurant, respectively) and it will be interesting to see if they can get nearer the summit.

Yellow River, North Colonnade, 10 Cabot Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 4EY (0171-715 9515). Monday to Friday 11.30am-9.30pm, Saturday 11.30am-8pm.

Restaurant set menus at £19.99 or £25.99 (two people minimum ), otherwise it is about £30 for three courses, including service but excluding wine; or £20 in the café. All credit cards except Diners. Disabled access. Chiswick branch: 12 Chiswick High Road, London W4 (0181-987 9791)

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