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Lunch at Tampopo

Jenny Wilkinson follows the crowds towards Tampopo's Eastern Express menu

Published on January 14th 2010.

Lunch at Tampopo

The weekday lunchtime meal out is a tricky one to get right. If you've only an hour and your boss is the type who times how long you spend stirring your coffee each morning, you need to be quick. And if your job sends you to sleep (even after that coffee), you need it to be healthy and refreshing, rather than stodgy and soporific.

Tampopo's Eastern Express menu looks like a good bet for speed. The deal is a choice of six mains plus a side of dumplings or rice paper rolls for £6.95 – with the 'express' claim referring to the swiftness of the service.

We went to the Albert Square restaurant on a Tuesday at about one o'clock, and found it to be almost full; it's obviously a favourite with the office crowd. The long communal tables and red and beige Communist-chic interior seemed particularly appropriate at this time of day. Although most people were dressed in suits and ties rather than uniforms or overalls, it had the feeling of a canteen where the workers get a good meal before the next shift starts. Except that at Tampopo you get your own little red cushion on your bench (an upgrade introduced in the recent refurb) and a waiter takes your order rather than making you queue at a kitchen counter.

My friend ordered a beer – reckless for a workday lunchtime – and I had no choice but to do the same. At least I went for the 330ml Asahi rather than her 500ml Kirin Ichiban. For more conscientious workers, there's a good choice of teas (green, jasmine and mint) plus Vietnamese coffee, Tzu – 'a sparkling revitalising Eastern health drink', and fresh lime soda – as well as all the usual soft drinks.

The lunch menu contains a selection of meals from the regular menu, including rice-based, noodle-based and soup dishes. If it was evening, I'd have chosen the panang curry, which you pay an extra pound for. I eat at Tampopo regularly and think this hot, coconut, lime leaf and chicken dish is one of their best.

I wasn't hungry enough to tackle a curry so I went for the pho ga, thinking this plainer, lighter-sounding Vietnamese soup would be more suitable for a small appetite. It arrived in a bowl as big as my head. A stir of the deep, clear broth revealed a generous and colourful ensemble of spring onions, red chilli, lime leaves, noodles, and lots of strips of chicken breast. With the pork dumplings on the side, it made a satisfying meal; not as flavoursome as some of their dishes but invigorating and I expect, very healthy.

My friend had tahu goreng: an Indonesian stir fry based on tofu, mushrooms and onions. It came with jasmine rice which she barely touched; the stir fry itself being enough for this time of day. She said she liked the way they'd “not overplayed their card” on the ingredients – avoiding the habit some kitchens have of chucking in every variety of veg in stock when preparing a stir fry.

Our lunches encapsulated what I like best about Tampopo. Their food tastes, and sort of feels, fresh (none of those pre-chopped, factory-shipped meals that you get in some chain restaurants) and although they don't take short-cuts with the preparation, it's still fast and consistent in quality.

With lunch-time deals more ubiquitous every day in these cash-strapped times, this long established offer must be one of the best; the portion sizes aren't reduced along with the cost, and you seem to get exactly the same quality as you would for a fully priced meal in the evenings. In fact, the only thing that threatened to derail it was its popularity – the waiters had to work at top speed to take payment from a floor full of diners who all wanted to leave at the same time. This wasn’t as easy as it should have been as the restaurant only possessed one chip and pin machine when we went, they need to sort that. Maybe they already have.

When we'd finished our beers, the lunch time rush was largely over. My friend eyed up a basket of prawn crackers that our neighbours had only half eaten, and wondered aloud whether it was cheeky to ask for a doggy-bag of someone else's leftovers. We decided it was. We're all skint nowadays but there's no need to let standards slip. A lesson that Tampopo seems to have already learned.

The £6.95 Eastern Express Menu is available between midday and 7pm every day at Tampopo Albert Square and Tampopo in The Triangle, Exchange Square.

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20: Gordo gets carried away

To find out about Tampopo offers click here.

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