This demi-paradise

Martin Plimmer has seen the future of food and it doesn't wok
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Swedes started the trend in do-it-yourself restaurants by inventing self-service food, but it took American marketing know-how to promote the absence of plates, cutlery and flavour as a positive benefit. Now the baton of innovation in the DIY food race has been passed to the northern Chinese, whose elementary eating habits are claimed to be the inspiration for Tiger Lil's flaming wok restaurants.

Here, customers prepare their own food - combining raw ingredients, sauces and seasonings at whim. These are handed to a muscular bandana-wound wok-man wielding a giant ladle. With much drama, clanging noise and sheets of flame, he singes them together in an unspeakable food ball, then dumps them in and around your bowl.

Actually, I suspect Tiger Lil's to be a Western operation with a bit of Oriental mumbo jumbo sprinkled on top. Some marketing whiz-kids asked themselves the question: what can you give the restaurant goer who has everything? They came up with the answer: less. They then developed a concept which does away with chefs and much of the waiting chore and consulted the Feng-shui experts (so the company literature says) about where the three London restaurants should be located. Ancient Chinese lore recommended Clapham Common, Islington's Upper Street and the King's Road, Chelsea.

Tiger Lil's is a bad idea masquerading as a good idea. Initially, it appeals to your sense of novelty and vanity. As you queue at the raw-ingredients counter, you get the same fantastic power thrill you once experienced when your parents went out, giving you carte blanche to mix together measures taken from every single pot, bottle and canister in the house to make a huge violent snack.

The result was inedible. Exactly the same thing happens at Tiger Lil's. You heap raw squid rings on pak-choi, raw turkey parts on tofu, yet still you cannot reach the culinary heights. It is impossible not to overdo it. The inscrutable wok-men pass no judgement, merely adding extra sauces to your food as you recite your choices from the list on the blackboard behind them.

Morally speaking, there should be a qualified person at this position saying: "Fool! You make a terrible mistake! Resist the hot creamy coconut lime leaves!" But there isn't. This is the cooking equivalent of encouraging suicide: "Yes, I think it's a great idea! Can I pass you this axe?"

You realise just how foolish you are the moment you start to eat what you have made. Your mouth feels like an over-ambitious domestic science experiment.You feel you should go back and try again, but the piles of nude meat bits put you off. The wind-dried sausage seems to be laughing at you and the endless gonging of the wokpots make you want to behead somebody. The Chinese white chocolate cheesecake does not take the taste away.

Normally, people go to restaurants to eat something that has been cooked by someone who can do it, not by some incompetent who has just walked in off the street. It's funny how that hasn't occurred to you until now. Paying to queue up to make your own meal is bad enough, but having to eat it is worse. And you have nobody to blame but yourself