I've heard of fast food, but this is ridiculous. You give your side-dishes order in Cha Cha Moon, and the waiter rushes off to get them pronto, rather than wait to hear your order for main dishes. Everyone seems in a tearing hurry to sit you down, stick a napkin down your neck, take your order, ladle some won ton or ho fun down your throat, tap their feet and drum their fingers while you try to digest it, then bustle you out of the place so they can hurl two other people into your vacant spot on the bench. It's very brisk. If a restaurant could be a person, this one would be a Chinese Richard Madeley.
The chap behind it is the phenomenally successful Hong Kong visionary Alan Yau. He's taken Chinese cuisine up-market at the glamorous, French-designed and ludicrously dark Hakkasan off Oxford Street, and picked up a Michelin star there and at Yauatcha, his cool dim sum establishment in Soho; but he's also made a killing at street level with the pan-Asian fuelling-stop chains Wagamama and Busaba. He was, I think, the first food impresario to have waiters transmit orders direct to the kitchen by palm-top computer. And he did more than anyone else to encourage the British to stop being territorial about where they sit. At Wagamamas up and down the country, you sit with strangers at long tables, like co-workers chowing down in the staff canteen; it took a while to adjust, but we got used to it. At the more chic and friendly Thai-centric Busaba in Wardour Street, it was a pleasure to share tables with the post-movie Soho crowd.
Now there's Cha Cha Moon: the graphics on the red-glass door suggest Malaysian script, the menu ranges from Taiwan to Singapore and Penang and the six long plain-wood tables under rectangular industrial lighting suggest you're part of some assembly line (though, of course, you're the thing being processed). Through a long glass partition you can see the cooks hurling panfuls of wokked noodles, beansprouts and Chinese cabbage through the air with great urgency. I took my daughter Sophie along and, as we tried to conduct a standard-issue family gossip for 45 minutes, the eaters on either side of us changed about three times. There's a long salary-man bar where individuals can perch if they're, you know, really pressed for time.
The menu is, for the present, a brilliant shock: every single dish on it costs £3.50. And when you check out your neighbours' plates, it becomes clear that these aren't tapas-bar portions. Only a fool would order two main courses, right? But because they were practically giving the food away at these prices, that's what we did.
A little plate of spring rolls and a dim-sum called guotie passed for starters. The rolls were excellent, crunchy and full of exciting bits, including dried shrimp, Chinese chive and something called "Cloud ear" but the guotie was utterly standard Chinatown dumpling, fried on only one side until it tasted of bread, unexcitingly filled with chicken and spring onion. The only cold noodle dish in the house, chicken fen pi, was a dispiriting-looking plate of fried red onions with smoked chicken and brownish crumbs of "ground fried fish" – tasty, but heavy on the sesame dressing. My zhajiang mian was a bowl of shredded pork darkened with fermented soya bean and served with cucumber on ribbon noodles; again, it was OK, but unspectacular, possibly because pork diced up into teensy bits doesn't have much taste. It was flagged as a spicy little number, but the spice was provided by four warm red chillies; the chef might have tried to integrate the flavours a bit more.
Sophie's crispy duck lao mian arrived with a bowl of duck broth. "The duck tastes fine," she said. "To be honest it's not a million miles from Marks and Sparks Chinese duck salad. But if you dip it in the soup, it improves." I felt much the same about my jia xiang ho fun, shreds of braised beef in beansprouts and black bean sauce, on a mound of slithery flat noodles. It was no different from a hundred beef'n'black bean sauce combos I've eaten in the past three decades.
And then it was over. They clear your plates double quick. There's no pudding. They look at you in a meaningful way until you drain the remaining wine in your glass. And you leave this zoomingly hectic restaurant with hardly any aftertaste from the food, the drink or the atmosphere. It's hip, super-efficient and almost entirely soulless.
Cha Cha Moon
15-21 Ganton Street, London W1 (020-7297 9800)
About £30 for two with drinks (while promotion lasts)Reuse content