Chinese adventure turned into something of a Yan

According to Chinese astrology, all those born this year will be rodents. Apparently, being a rat is nothing to be ashamed of, quite the opposite. Rats are believed to be blessed with high intellects, courage and enterprising natures. They are charming, f

According to Chinese astrology, all those born this year will be rodents. Apparently, being a rat is nothing to be ashamed of, quite the opposite. Rats are believed to be blessed with high intellects, courage and enterprising natures. They are charming, funny and generous survivors.

To kick off the Year of the Rat last week, I took Grumpy to Yan, a glamorous looking place that opened on St John's Wood High Street last year.

We've a selection of great local Asian restaurants - Singapore Garden, Royal China and Goldfish all consistently serve up excellent Chinese food. I had high hopes for the smart newcomer.

As we arrived, a young Chinese couple were leaving with take-away food. A good sign - we thought. Inside, two of the six occupied tables were populated by Chinese people. Also good. Of course, that theory assumes that all those people are fantastic home cooks and connoisseurs of Chinese food and choose Yan's food over their own gourmet offerings.

We were greeted warmly and seated at a recently vacated table in the window in between two stylish red lanterns. Grumpy moaned the chair wasn't big enough to accommodate his large behind but I had no complaints. Staff bustled about us with clean tablecloths, cutlery etc. Drinks orders were taken immediately and brought while we were still ordering. A good start.

The look is Laura Ashley goes East. The walls are clad in a pale blue pink blossom paper and hung with pictures of various Chinese ladies and unidentified Oriental flora. Some are for sale - at an ambitious £350 to £1500. A model cat sits on the bar cheerily waving a pendulum-like paw.

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From this moment on, the rat seemed less full of promise. Keen to know what the restaurant's specialities might be, I asked our waitress for some guidance. Either anything with cashew nuts (which is what she was pushing me towards) is their signature dish or she had absolutely no clue what I was talking about. I suspect the latter. I gave up and ordered freestyle.

We chose a range of dishes and picked at some prawn crackers. I'm sure the nutritional content of those polystyrene textured morsels must be equal to that of the tray your vegetables are displayed in at the supermarket.

The starters began to arrive. Sesame prawn toast was more prawn fried Garibaldi biscuit than the minced prawn and bread concoction we've become used to. Three deep-fried rectangles of bread arrived, each topped with a squashed prawn - tail on - and scattered with circles of hot red chilli and green spring onion. Fried in too cold oil it was oozing with grease.

More used to a tradition of eating my smoked salmon on a bagel or bridge roll, I was intrigued by "traditional Chinese smoked salmon fish". It turned out to be a huge lump of salmon fillet, smoked and then (I suspect) fried to give it a crust. The process had left it Sahara dry. Any sort of sauce to lubricate it might have rendered it edible but it sat, a hulking greasy lump all alone on a small plate and pretty much stayed there until our lovely waitress removed it.

Unable to eat either of our first dishes, we sat in anticipation of the last appetizer - salt and pepper bean curd, aubergine and pumpkin. What arrived resembled soggy greying chips. Oily rectangles of bean curd and aubergine lay with the odd courgette thrown onto the pyre. Perhaps the chef had tried to soak the oil with the vast quantities of salt thrown on top of it. It was inedible. To her credit, when our waitress saw how much we'd left and heard our reaction she took the dish off our bill.

By now, we were deliberating whether to leave then and pick up something less artery clogging from Itsu (across the road) but thought we'd give them the benefit of another course. Someone has spent time, money and energy on this place, surely it couldn't get worse? Mistakes happen and they deserved the benefit of our increasing doubt.

Steamed rice was steamed rice. Buddhist monk's mixed vegetables with crispy noodles (ordered soft not crispy) were an improvement. Grumpy - who was almost too aghast at what that had passed before him to even be grumpy about it - had chosen more bean curd for his main course. Served with a mixture of (once tasty) vegetables drowned in a gloopy soup of flour-thickened goo, he had a few spoonfuls before finally waving the white flag. Without the gallon of goo, the vegetables would have been OK.

A steamed scallop with garlic was actually good. A steamer basket containing a scallop shell on which sat a (perfectly cooked) fat scallop thickly topped with minced garlic. Hoping the tide had turned I looked forward to my seabass, pan-fried with ginger and spring onion.

What arrived was a whole seabass, butterflied so both fillets lay (skin up) side-by-side and attached to the fish. The fish was still swimming - in a sea of soy-flavoured liquid. The fish itself was moist and well cooked but without a hint of ginger.

At this stage we waved off the dessert card - pictures of various ice cream sundaes - in favour of our bill. As we left one of the really charming and extremely helpful waiting staff apologised for our food. She told me their usual chef was on holiday and that a second chef was standing in. The sub seemingly has different cooking methods.

She asked me to return when their usual chef is in and try again. Maybe I will, but my first sample of Yan's food was enough to have me running for the Royal - China, that is. I sympathise, but if you can't find someone to take your place, don't leave the kitchen.

Yan, 7 St John's Wood High Street, NW8 7NG.

Telephone: 020-7586 7209.

Food: one star only, I'm afraid.

Service: a respectable three stars

Opening hours: Sundays to Fridays 12.30pm to 10.30pm, Saturdays 12.30pm to 11.00pm

Cost: £57.49 for two courses and jasmine tea including 12.5 per cent service.

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