Restaurant: Street kitchen

Beware: exciting new concept
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Indy Lifestyle Online
East One is a new Oriental-style restaurant on the fringes of Clerkenwell and the City of London. It is a modern place with sleek minimal fittings, a pretty woman at hat-check and handsome young staff. There is a separate bar, which serves a decent neat Jameson and looks an excellent spot for meeting up after work. Acoustics are rackety and the place has enough natural clamour that it probably doesn't need its stereo system, the volume of which goes up abruptly after 11pm. Food-wise, the speciality is stir-fries. There is only one catch. The exciting new concept. You are expected to help prepare and serve your own dinner.

The exciting new concept is based on the street kitchens of the Orient, which, it explains in the blurb on the back of the menu, were situated near local food markets to ensure that fresh produce was always available, and that the range of dishes was inexhaustible. "At East One we have captured the spirit of the street kitchen, encouraging you to interact with our chefs, challenge them with new and exciting combinations from our extensive range of seasonal vegetables, seafoods and meats," the menu witters on. "The secret to enjoying this unique style of dining is making several trips to the wok burners, the intense heat of which seal in the nutrients and flavours and enable the meal to be ready in minutes. Each time, keep the ingredients simple, and select different combinations to create dishes of delicately balanced flavours to suit your own personal palate. Our chefs will then add just the right amount of your chosen sauce to complete the dish."

Here is how the exciting new concept works in practice: customers are seated at a table, where they are presented with empty bowls and chopsticks. They are also given a menu, a faintly dizzying document listing dozens of ingredients that might successfully be combined in a stir-fry, for example: "sliced beef; tomato; onion; spring onion; dark soy sauce" or "fat egg noodle; shredded chicken; bean sprout; Chinese mushroom; spring onion; light soy sauce".

Customers are not invited to order from this, but to study it. It is not really a menu, but a primer to prepare customers for step two: the trip to the wok. Like most voyages, this trip might begin with a queue, this one at an oblong bar stocked with raw ingredients, which include tofu, industrial- looking crab sticks, squid, chicken, pork, lamb, beef, bean sprouts, mange- tout and baak choi.

Here customers fill their little white bowls with a selection of ingredients. Success may depend on how well they studied their menu. Customers then queue again before a group of chefs who stir- fry their dinners over a turbo-wok with a sauce of choice: star anise, sweet chilli, black bean, yellow bean, plum, hoisin, coconut and lemon grass, oyster or soy. As their food cooks, customers wait and watch.

Once their food is cooked, it is placed in a second, clean bowl and taken by the customer back to the table, where a waiter brings bowls of rice and drinks. A set price of pounds 12.50 buys as many trips to the wok as you have the patience to make. Evidently women tend to take two trips, rowdy male all-you-can-eaters a few more. Either way, given the relative cheapness of ingredients, and size of the bowls, the profit margins look good. Margins look even better on the 12.5 per cent built-in service charge, presumably levied for the privilege of customers having served themselves.

One has to marvel at this exciting new concept. Granted, anyone could have taken self-service catering and interactive theatre, applied them to Chinese food, then called it Oriental street food as served indoors in a chic London restaurant. No, the impressive part is getting people to play along, even enjoy it. The night I ate at East One, a large party of office workers in their twenties were having a great old time carousing around with cocktails in one hand, little white bowls in the other.

This stumps me utterly. I cannot fathom the appeal of paying to traipse about with a raw version of one's dinner. And though a queue is not guaranteed, we encountered one at the food bar and at the cooking station on our second trips. Great fun, paying to queue.

Where this exciting new concept borders on genius is that the restaurant cannot be blamed for serving bad food. No, if a customer fills the little white bowl badly, then who's the bad chef? I am therefore obliged to report harshly about my own bowl- filling technique. Combining shredded pork with cabbage and sweet chilli sauce was not a good idea. Maybe it was the dash of soy sauce I though might help as I watched it cook. I enjoyed it so little, I considered demanding a refund from myself. However, I redeemed myself slightly with the second trip to the wok, when I chose chicken, baak choi and red chillis, and wisely took the chef's suggestion of black bean sauce. I decided on compromise and did not leave myself a tip