Lake: the village that’s in the way of other more interesting places.
If you’ve passed through Lake you may have been too distracted by its architectural hotchpotch to notice the disproportionate number of eateries – particularly takeways. Indian, chippy and Chinese restaurants all vie for attention on Lake’s short strip. Obviously deciding that the market isn’t quite saturated, summer 2011 saw the opening of Asia Fusion.
Nostalgia buffs may mourn the loss of gentlemen’s outfitters ‘Man About Lake’ and its sister shop ‘Lady of Lake’. There may be some readers who also remember when Lake had enough working men to warrant the magnificence of Lake Working Men’s Club. This spectacular construction, built in a 1970s brutalist style, looms triumphant at the rise of Sandown Road. Affiliated with the CIU (Club and Institute Union), it was the setting for many a wedding reception, darts match and meat raffle. Having sat forlornly vacant for a considerable time, the lights are again glittering as Asia Fusion has breathed life into this monolithic landmark.
As soon as its doors were opened, Asia Fusion prompted comment on Matt and Cat’s Facebook page, including some quite negative feedback. M&C try not to be swayed by others’ opinions and, keeping their collective mind open, they ventured to the Asia Fusion with some friends in tow. Would they concur with the naysayers?
Their first impressions (once they’d negotiated the skip and rubble in the car park and the temporary sign on the remnants of a demolished gatepost) was that Asia Fusion was a vast Chinese takeaway, with a profusion of menus and a waiting area for home diners. However, beyond the counter lay the restaurant and, as Matt and Cat’s party waited to be seated they had a good look around. Clearly some interior fittings of the Lake Working Men’s Club prevailed: huge green leather banquettes lined the walls and the bar was presumably a throw-back to the days of the ‘gallon of whisky raffle’. Although M&C were half expecting other Asian cuisine, maybe Indian and Thai food, to be on offer, it wasn’t. What the ‘Fusion’ in the name means was not clear – unless it means the fusion of a Chinese restaurant with a working men’s club.
There was a wall lined with bains-marie, in which the food was available freely to the diners. If they hadn’t already been expecting it, Matt and Cat would have worked out that this was no ordinary restaurant but a buffet, in the style of Portsmouth’s popular Water Margin. Gunwharf’s Chinese canteen has a hint of school dinners about it; a vast hall with the constant clatter of cutlery and scraping of chairs as diners make multiple visits to the food counters. When they visited that restaurant last year Matt enjoyed the all-you-can-eat experience of the Water Margin, but Cat was dissatisfied with the limited range of cheap food there. How would Asia Fusion compare?
One of the complaints from Matt and Cat readers about Asia Fusion was the automatic addition of ten percent service charge to the bill – surely a paradox in a serve-yourself venue? However, throughout their meal, Matt and Cat’s group was very well-attended: the drinks order was taken on arrival and the waitress patiently explained how the buffet system worked, even adding that dirty plates should be left to one side (where they were immediately cleared by the staff) and any subsequent visits to the bains-marie should be made with fresh crockery. What’s more, nobody could be in any doubt about the 10% surcharge – a sign is on every table to indicate it, and the waitress even mentioned it in her welcoming introduction. Nonetheless Matt and Cat can’t help thinking that Asia Fusion have made a tactical error here. In London this may be standard practice, but on the Island it is not, nor should it be. It gives diners a disagreeable first impression and makes reviewers drone on about prices when really they should be talking about the food. Surely the answer is to put the prices up 10%? Or have all the other Island restaurateurs failed to understand the benefits of the mandatory 10% tax somewhere?
The buffet itself was smaller that the industrial catering of Water Margin, where the ‘pile it high’ philosophy was a good model with such a colossal turnover of food. The joy of Asia Fusion was that its smaller serving dishes were constantly replenished. Oriental food benefits from being freshly cooked and its edibleness depletes with every minute it sweats it out under hot lamps. There were no concerns about diminishing quality at Asia Fusion; in fact, at one point, Matt and Cat had food cooked fresh and delivered directly to their table – but that comes later in the story.
Once the drinks and instructions had been dispensed, Matt and Cat were introduced to the buffet which was handily arranged in starters, mains and pud. Cat’s a big fan of Hong Kong Express’s mixed hors d’oeuvres and with the Asia Fusion buffet she replicated this pick ‘n’ mix option, tonging prawn toast, chicken satay and crispy seaweed onto her plate.
Matt also enjoyed the free-range buffet-style as it meant not only could he choose what to have, but also how much. He and Cat returned to their table and ate their starters. The selection was delicious and fresh. Their friends had all chosen different combinations from the available starters; comparing the different dishes was an entertaining game. This really would be a great place for a big, mixed group of people who have different appetites and tastes – so long as some sort of Chinese is what they want.
2 x evening buffet (adult) £25.60
Service charge: £2.56
At this point in a review you’d normally expect some blow-by-blow account of the dishes, course by course. In this instance, you’ll have to do without that, as the buffet experience meant that everyone at the table had something different, at different times. Although each dish was carefully labelled the party didn’t pay much attention to the text. However, that doesn’t mean that the food was bland or samey. Far from it. Arriving with the expectation of disappointment, Matt and Cat were pleasantly surprised by the quality of their supper. The crispy-fried beef, for example, was fresh and not soggy; the tasty vegetables were perky not steamed to death, and the rice and noodles were not coagulated masses. On or two dishes were worth avoiding, such as the crab soup, which was starchy to the point of solidity. But as it was serve yourself, there was no reason not to taste first before taking a full portion; and if one item was not favoured plenty of other good-quality dishes were on offer. It was hardly fine dining, but it was good, wholesome food, and plenty of it. Or, for the modest eater, as little as you want.
Now it might be worth mentioning that M&C and their party arrived at about eight, and the place was pretty full, mostly with families (the buffet is cheaper for children, and also at lunchtimes). By the time the diners were finally finished with the buffet, pretty much everyone else had gone. It’s often that way with big family dining places. So it might be worth coming to the Asia Fusion for an earlier sitting rather than a late-night session. Despite this, the ever-attentive staff politely asked Matt and Cat’s party if they’d finished with the buffet before they stopped bringing out the fresh food. And dessert, which is cooked to order, was yet to come. A splendid fresh fruit salad was to hand in good summer dining style, and banana fritters. There was a moment of panic when the waitress had to confess that banana fritters were no longer available, but this was rapidly dispelled when she offered pineapple fritters instead. When they turned up, fresh from the pan, they came with not only a scoop of ice cream but a sprinkling of hundreds and thousands. An ironic homage to the 1970s building? No, it was the real thing. A brilliantly good finish – and all included in the price. Jamie Oliver himself could not have done this better.
So, an unexpectedly good experience. The service was well worth 10%, although Matt and Cat would have preferred to use their discretion and pay a tip voluntarily. The food, and the place in general, was all considerably better than the exterior of Lake Working Men’s Club might lead one to expect. It was clean, tidy, well-presented, and above all, the food was good value and above-average quality. By the numbers dining, it looked as though Lake had already caught on to this new set-up – Matt and Cat recommend you do the same.