Pan-Asian food took a bit of a knocking once upon a time. In its fusion form it was ridiculed by the critics, then more focused contemporary restaurants like Hakkasan (Chinese) and Zuma (Japanese) stole the show.
When the Ignite Group opened Cocoon with pan-Asian intentions last year (on the former site of L'Odeon) its food didn't get a very warm welcome either. There were favourable comments about the sexy, futuristic - and slightly OTT - interior, but the menu was considered as posey as the clientele.
But new blood was brought in earlier this year in the shape of executive chef Andrew Lassiter. Although only 27, Lassiter had just spent two years as head chef of Eight Over Eight with Will Ricker, who is the champion of this type of food, proving that when done well it can remain both fashionable and delicious. Lassiter was also sous chef at Ricker's Notting Hill jewel E&O.
Luckily for the surroundings and the clientele, the new food remains unashamedly posey - or "funky and sexy", according to Lassiter.
Flavour of course is important," he says, "but once I've got the flavour right then I spend another couple of weeks making it look like something no one else has. If I can't get that right I'll leave the dish until I have a brainwave as to how it should look." Glass, slate, wood, leaves and even rocks are all employed to get that look - "I've spent lots of time looking round garden centres," he says.
Eastern favourites It's also quite ostentatious: luxurious Western ingredients are mixed with Eastern favourites like foie gras served with black cod (£30), while lobster nigiri sees caviar wrapped in nori seaweed with a lobster claw on the side (18). But it isn't without purpose. Hamachi (yellowtail tuna) comes with truffle oil and slivers of white truffle. Here the potentially overwhelming aroma of the truffle is cleverly balanced by a mixture of soy and mirin (sweet rice wine). "It doesn't kill the truffle," says Lassiter, "just holds it in check."
Lassiter's particular favourite, the duck pancake (£20), is particularly outrageous. Small pancakes are cooked in the wok, topped with hoi sin and cucumber, and then a small square of crispy-skinned duck breast. But there the orthodoxy ends. Next goes a small ballotine of foie gras marinated in port and shaoxing wine, and then finally a dollop of oscietra caviar, all tied up in a parcel with chives. "You get the salt of the caviar, then the richness of the foie gras and then the sweetness of the duck and hoi sin," says Lassiter. "It's a big burst of flavour."
He admits a degree of trial and error is needed when it comes to crossing cuisines in such a way. "There's no big manual you can copy from," he says. But experience, of course, is also crucial. Lassiter was sent to Shanghai when he worked for Ricker for a five-month study tour, and as well as mastering Oriental techniques he was able to share his understanding of Western ingredients with the Chinese chefs.
The result is classical taste combinations reworked using Oriental flavours or techniques. So instead of oysters with lemon and Tabasco, Lassiter puts them with a yuzu (Japanese lemon) jelly and an orange-flavoured ponzu sauce (ponzu is a sake- and soy-based sauce); meanwhile, beef and foie gras go together in gyoza (fried and steamed) dim sum parcels.
With all this luxury, Lassiter's food costs are high. He imports Chilean sea bass because the flesh is sweeter than the native variety - it's then steamed with a chilli bean and black bean paste as well as soy, shaoxing wine, ginger and garlic - and Wagyu beef from both the USA and Australia.
High staff costs He also has very high staff costs. The 27-strong brigade is split roughly between Asian and Western chefs, and he needs a separate dim sum, wok and sushi chefs as well as the cold and hot sections. Even the dim sum, which traditionally are a good way to balance GPs (because of the lower food costs) need very skilled hands.
"It's hard to find people who are precise enough because with dim sum it's all about consistency," says Lassiter. "I certainly don't have the speed my dim sum girls have."
If you take away the premium ingredients, though, Lassiter has managed to create an otherwise reasonably priced menu, with average spend about 50 - the norm for West End restaurants.
Volume has a lot to do with it.
The kitchen is doing 300 covers a night on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and even managing 70 at lunch.
What's on the Menu
- Three-piece scallop sashimi, £6
- One-piece yellowtail tuna nigiri, £4
- Date and water chestnut, red vinegar, chilli, sesame dim sum, £6
- Scallop won ton, chilli tomato essence, £7.50
- Lobster tempura with orange ponzu, £30
- Soft-shell crab, green chilli aïoli, lemon ponzu, £9
- Australian Wagyu beef served on hot rocks with teriyaki sauce, £47
- Plum pudding with umeshu ice-cream, £6.50
- Lemon nai won with cinnamon ginger doughnuts, £7