It's open! It's here! It's cheap! Yes, I'm quite excited by Alan Yau's new noodle bar, Cha Cha Moon. After all, what can you get for £3.50 these days – a wooden mousetrap? One-third of a Sebastian Faulks novel? A caramel macchiato with half a double-choc muffin?
But now you can get char kway teow noodles with Chinese sausage and fish cake that jumps with the scorchy, sizzling "wok hei" that is the spirit of brisk, high-heat wok-frying. Or a bowl of pickled vegetables, glass noodles and translucent lobes of cod that is light, lovely and subtle. Or rice-flour rolls topped with a spicy, smoky, XO chilli sauce.
How long all the soup noodles, wok-fried dishes and side dishes are going to stay at £3.50 depends on who you ask. It could be two weeks or a year. So let's look beyond the question of price, to the question of how good it is.
Yau changed the world as we know it in 1992 with the first Wagamama in Bloomsbury, where yakisoba noodles were priced at... £3.50. Just as Wagamama was loosely based on the Japanese ramen noodle bar, Cha Cha Moon is a glossy reworking of Hong Kong's traditional dai pai dongs – simple, street stalls known for modest mian (noodle) dishes, rice congees and stir-fries.
The menu here mixes northern and western Chinese dishes such as Zhajiang minced-pork noodles, spicy dan dan noodles, and wor tip or "guotie" dumplings, with Hong Kong/Cantonese standards (beef ho fun, XO rice-noodle rolls, wonton noodle soup), then throws in a few curve balls with Taiwan beef noodle and Singapore fried noodles.
It looks more like a glamorous nightclub from the street, but once inside, it's a people's republic. There is a boarding-school line-up of bare wooden communal tables in the bamboo-ceilinged room, with tall bars and stools for singles. A steamy, hi-tech, on-view kitchen, manned by 20 chefs from mainland China, Hong Kong and Malaysia, supplies instant theatre.
Like Wagamama, Cha Cha Moon is all about turnover – the faster you get fed, the faster you go, and the more money they make. Staff are primed to keep things moving but couldn't be nicer about it. Starters are cleverly called "sides" and come at random, so you can't slow things by having a leisurely, measured meal. You could, however, make a meal of them. Vegetable spring rolls are plump and juicy without a trace of oil. Chinese chives are like bright, green, healthy pick-up sticks, almost creamy with garlic. Guotie chicken dumplings have a luscious filling and crisp bottoms. Spring-onion cakes are typically northern, oozing with spring onioniness and heavier than the chi-chi Cantonese dim sum equivalent, but more real for it.
I've been back often enough to try things that don't knock me out: Zhajiang mian, a kind of Chinese spaghetti Bolognese; a classic roast-duck noodle soup that tasted of the flour from the wheat noodles; and salmon lai fun soup noodles with a light, murky broth. I don't think the kitchen has nailed the masterstock yet. Some broths are unbalanced and bland, verging on "lite".
To drink, there is Chinese Harbin beer (£3.60), a few girly cocktails, soft drinks, and just three wines: red (Portuguese), white (French Sauvignon) and rosé (Italian), all served in slim 250ml carafes for £4.90 and perfectly drinkable. Even that dai pai dong staple of frothy, milky tea made with condensed milk is available.
Chinatown isn't going to like this one bit, as Cha Cha Moon redefines the noodle bar, parking it firmly between Hakkasan's glamour and Wagamama's debasement. This is one for the people, with cheap, cheerful and fun recession dining.
Already there are clues, as everyone wants to go to the Moon. So go soon, and if you are lucky, the £3.50 will still rule. Even if it doesn't, you could still be lucky.
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
Cha Cha Moon, 15-21 Ganton St, London W1, tel: 020 7297 9800. Open daily 12pm-11pm. Around £35 for two with wine and service
Read Terry Durack's new column at independent.co.uk/eat
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