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Restaurants: Fashionable fusion and a happy buzz

I TAKE the business of restaurant seating very seriously. So, it seems, do other people - I've just read a paper from Fukuoka University in Japan on the science of it all. I'm a fan of "side-by-side", but because I'm left-handed and she's right- handed, Neris prefers "face-to-face". She says "side-by-side" means too many elbows, so she was delighted that a "face-to-face" table was available when we booked at Cocoon in London's West End.

Cocoon used to be home to L'Odeon - a restaurant that made a selling point of the ceiling's odd lowness. But, with voile curtains that curve round soft spaces, Cocoon has made the place a lot more inviting. The mix of silks, woods and flowers is inspired by the life cycle of the butterfly. I don't know where the Plexiglass or spot-lighting fits in with that - but the end result is a natural wonder.

I didn't expect much of the food - I never do when a place looks as hip as this. The menu showcased the trend for "small eats", with lots of dishes to share, but its "pan-Asian" flavour worried me a bit. Different Asian cuisines playing off each other on the same menu always make me think of those all-you-can-eat buffets in New Jersey shopping malls. But the waiter soon got us into the spirit of it all.

He swooped in, and gave us a tour of the menu. He was charming, but he was also Spanish. And I would just say that, in English, there's a big difference between "mushroom" and "fungus" - whatever the mycological dictionary may say. Nobody is going to order a fungus dumpling, however nice the waiter is. He ended up recommending sashimi, a flight of sushi, followed by an appetiser and a main course or two. We nodded eagerly.

The selection of sashimi showcased a range of texture and taste, from silky yellowtail tuna to buttery scallop. But the sushi was disappointing; not terribly neat, and served with the thin, pink slices of ginger that come with supermarket sushi. Too much on the list was familiar. I would have liked some surprises. Like a prairie maki sushi, made with fillet steak. Or a rice-pudding-and- banana sushi.

But next came nigiri made from toro (pounds 8.50), the expensive, butter-soft underbelly of the tuna. A blowtorch sear on one side turned the fish into something quite delicious. The heat had melted the fat under the skin, which is where the flavour is, leaving two textures and two tastes in one mouthful. It's a trendy New York idea, but good for all that. And, along with the soft-shell crab special roll (pounds 8), it was the highlight of this section of the menu.

The steamed vegetarian dim sum (pounds 9.50 for four) was as pretty as a picture. The wrappers of the crystal dumplings, beetroot and tofu dumplings, enoki mushroom dumplings and Chinese chive dumplings were all a different pastel shade. And each was stuffed fat with filling. The texture was a little over-steamed, but the taste was first-rate.

The red-wine-vinegar pork (pounds 12.50) had been wok-grilled to melt off the belly fat and caramelise the meat. And the Szechuan chilli chicken (pounds 11.50) arrived sizzling hot, but was still insistently soft. After such big flavours, the poor spinach beancurd (pounds 9.50) didn't stand much of a chance. But it had been braised beautifully in a sweet pumpkin sauce and left with the texture of a sweet, poached cod. It acted as a palate cleanser before pudding.

The dessert list was a real treat - but very un-Asian. The mandarin rum panna cotta (pounds 7.50), for instance. And the sticky date samosa (pounds 7.50) with spicy chocolate mousse. The mousse was dusted with pepper, and infused with chilli. I tasted the sweetness of chocolate in my mouth and the smoky heat of chilli down my throat. I just felt its warmth - enough to justify another glass of dessert wine.

After seeing the chic decor at Cocoon I fully expected the food to be infected with the same sense of high-fashion. But it wasn't. And I thought the service would be stand-offish. But it wasn't. A few dishes with more imagination would be nice. But it's nice to have a good all-rounder with such a happy buzz. Neris puts it all down to the face- to-face seating. E


65 Regent Street, London W1,

020-7494 7600


Ambience HHHHI

Service HHHII

Three courses, without wine, pounds 50