Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Cocochan

Having only been open a mere three months, Cocochan, the new pan-Asian kid on the block, is already being compared to modern Chinese heavyweight Hakkasan a few tosses of the wok away. Walking into the dimly lit venue just off Oxford Street (my bright white featured photo is somewhat misleading), the comparisons soon become clear. From the deep purple lighting and metallic, mirrored latticework, to the carved wood partitions and black bamboo tables, Cocochan is highly stylized, but manages to pull the look off with modish insouciance.

The names Cocochan and Hakkasan are remarkably similar in their three-syllable, trip off the tongue, ending in 'n' playfulness. They even rhyme. But enough of the comparisons, for Cocochan does more than ape its role model, it succeeds as a destination venue in its own right. The chefs here champion the sous-vide technique, where food is slow cooked in a vacuum pack to ensure consistency and retain vitamins.

The menu is formed around the three 'cultures' of Asian food – southwest (Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Burmese) with its focus on spices, northeast (Chinese, Korean and Japanese) famed for its frying fetish, and the aromatically influenced southeast (Thai, Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Malaysian). Divided into sections, such as 'small dishes', 'dim sum', 'large dishes' and 'sides', the menu allows you to choose between Asian-style sharing or British plate hogging. I'd strongly advocate the former – it makes for an exciting dining experience; a tastebud tour of Asia and all its flavour nuance.

My journey begins with cocktails in the basement bar that seems somewhat disjointed from the restaurant above. While Moorish music blares from the speakers, I sip on a Scarlet Club – a mixture of Beefeater gin, Galliano, lemon sherbet, raspberry syrup and egg white. The colour of a pinched cheek and garnished with an edible pansy, it's satisfyingly sharp, and has a pleasingly creamy texture from the egg white. Before making my way back upstairs, I find time for a second, opting for the intriguingly-titled and dangerously strong Secret Garden, made with Plymouth gin, Cachaça, apple brandy and grenadine.

Craving nourishment, my dining companions and I take our seats upstairs, among the quiff-sporting fashionistas and bespectacled media types. Preferring the small plates concept, which so many London restaurants have successfully adopted, our dishes are brought out individually, and considerately come in threes, meaning less squabbling and more gobbling. Our feast begins with piping hot edamame, and quickly moves on to an innovative take on sesame prawn toast (£4.25). The size of a snooker ball, they are perfectly round and flecked with poppy seeds. Designed to be dipped in the accompanying sweet chili sauce, their spherical shape renders the journey from plate to mouth problematic, but the flavour rewards are worth the effort.

Our taste tour of Asia continues, amidst glasses of steely, lime-laced Domäne Wachau Grüner Veltliner, with crispy duck spring rolls (£5.25), thick as a Cohiba and enhanced by the salty hoisin, glutenous chicken and chestnut gyoza (£4.25) served in a spicy broth, and pleasingly fishy scallop and prawn siu mai (£4.75) topped with jewel-like orange caviar. The crab-fueled California maki (£7.75) and salmon sashimi (£4.25) are textbook, while five paper-thin slithers of hamachi (£8.75) sprinkled with emerald green flying fish roe and laced with truffle soya mirin are too tiny to merit their price tag.

Main events include well judged, juicy tiger prawn tempura with spicy mayo (£8.50), and an outstanding aromatic duck and watermelon salad (£7.75). Ablaze with red and green, the juicy duck, cooling watermelon and mint, and salty hoisin and cashews create a flavour crescendo. We finish on a high note with a Korean dish: 'bulgogi' ribeye in a wasabi jus (£18.50). Meaning 'fire meat', our version, served medium rare, is perfectly pink, packed with meaty flavour and wonderfully soft – an ideal match for our opulent Opportunist Shiraz. Pudding comes in the form of an almost airborne pomegranate crème Brûlée, served with a pair of windmill-like peanut brittle sails.

Cocochan certainly seems to have been modelled in Hakkasan's image, but this is no bad thing. The service is impeccable, food almost faultless, and most pleasing of all, the prices are incredibly fair for its central London location. Hakkasan may be the pan-Asian king, but this princely pretender is a deserved heir to the throne.

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