A mix and match menu ordered on a tablet? If that’s the future, says Jill Turton, I’d prefer to live in the past.
Ever since the general manager showed me round for a guide book I was writing, I’ve had a soft spot for the Studley Hotel in Harrogate. In particular, for its Orchid restaurant which avoids the standard upmarket hotel error of offering an over-priced menu that only someone on an expense account would cough up for. Instead, the Orchid has an international brigade cooking the greatest hits from Japan, China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand with sustained success.
So when I heard that the Orchid was opening in Leeds, with the name Teppan 260, it was good news. They’ve bagged a prominent corner site on Millennium Square from the recently vacated Casa Mia and spent some considerable yen on making it new and modern with numerous shades of grey, etched glass, a stainless steel kitchen and those de-rigeur exposed light bulbs. And computer tablets locked to every table.
Tap the pad and your order is beamed straight to the kitchen, no hanging about and no human interaction unless you can’t work the thing. Your Mieng Gai, Thai green salad or Teppan 260 is on the table in no time. Minimal waiting time, minimal waiting staff, maximum profit. Is this the future now?
But first back to the present and that eponymous Teppan 260. It comes from the Japanese teppanyaki, a ferociously hot iron plate heated to 260 degrees and delivered – by human hand – to your table where the food continues to cook. Watch the YouTube video on their website and you get the idea.
The hot plate nestles inside a wooden tray with a paper collar to stop customers being hit by hot fat (of which there appears to be no real danger). A jug of sauce sits on the side.
The menu is a DIY affair. Choose your protein: beef, lamb chicken, salmon, seafood and so on. Then choose your carbs in the form of noodles, rice or chips and then your sauce. There’s a short wine list and a long beer list.
The idea is fine with the minor disadvantage that one tablet between two means one person has to wait while the other reads and taps. I go first: One Tsingtao beer… tap. One Thai beef salad…tap. One mushroom heaven with Tofu… tap.
‘Choose your accompaniment to go with your main dish’. OK. Choose from thin egg noodles, thick egg noodles, Japanese udon, vermicelli, steamed basmati rice, egg fried rice or forget about all that Oriental stuff and just go for chips.
‘Choose your sauce to go with your main dish’. Help. What goes best with mushroom heaven? Black pepper, Thai penaeng curry, Sichuan black bean, coriander and garlic? Wild guess. ‘Singapore spiced soy’…tap. The price comes up like a Sainsbury till roll. £13.70. Confirm... tap. Submit… tap. I’m mildly surprised not to be asked for my credit card number.
Starters arrive almost as soon as we’ve made the last tap. The Thai beef salad is a successful medley of strips of Yorkshire beef, celery and cucumber in fish sauce, fired up with lemon juice and a hefty kick of bird’s eye chilli.
Equally good is Mieng Gai, a Thai dish of minced chicken with crushed peanuts, shallots, pepper, garlic and lemon on a betel leaf folded into a little parcel and popped in the mouth. Light, fragrant, tasty. Just four delicate pieces for £3.90, though I was tempted to tap for more.
But the Teppan 260 is what we’re here for and my ‘mushroom heaven’ comes sizzling to the table as promised. I couldn’t identify all five types of mushroom. I clocked button and shitake and trust the rest included cloud ear, wood ear and straw along with cubes of tofu.
Anyway, I mixed them on the hot plate with the Japanese udon noodles and poured over my choice of Singapore soy sauce. Mistake. The thin soy sauce just slid off the noodles, evaporated on the hot teppan plate and virtually disappeared. They brought me another jug of sauce on request which helped. Re-reading the menu I realised I’d selected ‘a lighter sauce – soy infused with bird’s eye chillies and ginger – good for seafood dishes.’ Presumably not so good then for mushrooms and noodles.
Our other teppan dish was pork tonkatsu. What we didn’t know and what the menu didn’t clearly explain was that tonkatsu is a slice of deep fried breaded pork, a Wiener Schnitzel lookalike. In Japan, I’ve since learned, it’s usually served with a thick, spicy sauce and shredded cabbage.
Ignorant of this, in downtown Millennium Square we had chosen coriander and garlic sauce and Japanese udon noodles. When the pork had been chopped up, slathered in sauce and mixed with noodles it was just about OK. But weird. Middlesbrough Parmo takeaway meets Kyoto noodle bar.
As a fan of the Orchid, I understand they don’t want to reproduce the same formula in Leeds city centre which has plenty of pan-Asian options already. But there’s a problem. It’s not the hot teppan plate. It’s not even the gimmicky tablet ordering system. It’s the excessive choice.
Of course, choice is good. But only up to a point. Here, mathematically, there are 441 variants of the main course with no single variant promoted as traditional to country of origin. Nothing to prevent the creation of bastardised combinations that look and taste wrong.
I want to know what the dozen dishes are that chef believes in and not be left to play ingredients Scrabble. In fact, I’m not sure that this DIY menu-making is such a smart idea; I suspect that – like TV – lots of punters still prefer choosing from a schedule rather than going through the faff of being their own scheduler.
But if I’m wrong – and I probably am – and this is the sort of concept that will soon be successfully rolled out through our city centres, then rather than Submit I’ll be tapping Cancel and Log Out.
• Teppan 260, 6 Millennium Square, Great George St, Leeds LS2 3AD. 0113 243 1888, www.teppan260.co.uk. Price: £20 per person plus drinks and service.