Standing outside the Hana Moon, a wave of trepidation sweeps over me. I think it’s a restaurant, the internet thinks it’s a restaurant, and there’s a menu in a display case on the wall. But surveying its black-tiled, windowless façade, frothy pink and yellow signage and heavy-duty carved wooden doors, I’m not completely convinced it’s not all just a front for a lap-dancing club.
My anxieties only increase when I venture inside and am confronted not by the expected tables and chairs but by a glitzy bar area and a young woman who jumps up and offers to ‘take me through’. As I’m led around a dark corner, images of hastily-convened police conferences flash through my mind, complete with baggy-eyed detective informing the assembled media that I was last seen “entering a ‘Japanese restaurant’ on Hales Street” – when hey presto! I’m back in the ’70s!
It’s not so much that everything’s beige (although it’s that too). It’s more that everything’s faux – from the leatherette banquettes, to the walls and floor in plastic wood, to the mock-crystal chandeliers and the artificial acer-in-autumn. Cranked up by the slightly-too-loud muzak and the total absence of windows, there is, as I feared, a definite dodgy nightclub vibe to this place – tempered just a little by the wood-effect formica table tops, with their wholesome dash of National Milk Bar. Is this intentional, I wonder?
On a weekday lunchtime, the place is practically deserted, so I’m mildly surprised when the waitress hands me a voluminous menu that’s well-thumbed to the point of dog-eared. I can only surmise it gets busy in the evenings. The reason for the menu’s unwieldiness, it soon emerges, is because – in yet another 1970s twist – they’ve decided to manage customer expectations by helpfully illustrating every dish with a ham-fisted could-be-anything photograph.
Detailed study of this tome leads me to conclude that as a vegetarian, my best bets are the Nasu Miso Dengaku (miso glazed aubergine) and the Vegetable Tempura Don (rice bowl dish). The aubergine is divine. A lengthways half, it arrives with a burnished, almost syrupy surface that is vaguely suggestive of crême brulée in vegetable form. The analogy turns to be an apt one: the flesh, consistently cooked all the way through, is soft and custardy, and the perfect platform for the salty-sweet gutsiness of the miso glaze. I wish they’d brought me the other half as well.
The Vegetable Tempura Don is less successful. Not because it’s not skilfully prepared – I’ve no complaints about the rice, and the tempura, light as fairy dust, somehow pulls off the difficult feat of tasting of the oil it was fried in without actually being oily. It’s just that, for me at least, the two elements – rice and vegetables – don’t really gel as an ensemble.
I don’t pretend to have the solution. The glory of this dish – and the place the chef sets out his stall – is of course the tempura. A sauce – soaking and soggy-fying it – would completely ruin it; but without sauce, the whole thing is crying out for liquid in a way I find quite distracting. It’s a bit like eating a bowl of cornflakes lubricated by a single teaspoon of milk.
Served with it is a small bowl of miso soup, which the waitress confides is ‘very hot’. I’m not sure whether she’s referring to the temperature or the Scoville scale, but by either criterion, it seems only moderately warm. In desperation, I pour it over the rice (I have no idea if I’m committing an unforgivable gastronomic faux-pas) but it doesn’t help much. It just sinks without trace and I have no choice but to continue chewing manfully until I reach the end.
Blinking back into the twenty-first century early afternoon, I can’t help a wary glance around to check I haven’t been clocked by someone I know. I’m momentarily disorientated by the brightness and the normal-life-continues-ness of the street outside, like that feeling you get when you emerge from the cinema after a matinée. On this occasion though, I’m uncertain what film I’ve been watching. Lost in Translation perhaps?
Hana Moon, 4&4a Hales Street, Coventry CV1 1JD. Masu Miso Dengaku £4.50; Vegetable Tempura Don £7.25