A load of shiitake

Food - Bee Wilson feels her life expectancy shrink in a Japanese restaurant

''The restaurant was invented in the 18th century. The 21st century needs something different." Itsu on Wardour Street, in London's Soho, is the latest venture of Julian Metcalfe, the man who put the pret in Pret a Manger. It promotes itself - and oh, how it promotes itself! - as "a 21st-century eating house".

Itsu is unquestionably a business of its age - of this age. Itsu gives you words instead of food, space instead of sustenance, "free juice for your mobile" (instead of for your thirst) and blatant confusion masquerading as simplicity. At the end of a meal, you're not quite sure whether you've eaten, but they still take real money from you and still hope to turn a profit. That much isn't new.

At Itsu, you get a mission statement on a leaflet where your place mat should be. There are more bullet points than in a memo from Alastair Campbell: You're in charge; No formality; No rules. At Itsu, you are forced to be free, with the hectoring liberality of marketing men who are happy to give you choices, as long as they are all commercial ones. Spend ten minutes or two hours, two pounds or 20. (In fact, to spend just two pounds, you'd have to survive on a tiny plate of three small slices of the cheapest sushi, but that's by the by.) Come early or late, on your own or with a crowd. We did come early, at 12.15pm, but there wasn't as yet any food trundling on the conveyor belt.

The idea of flexible mealtimes when dining out is actually a legacy of that dinosaur, the 18th-century French restaurant. Part of the appeal of the early restaurants was that, unlike at the rigid table d'hote of inns, the restless restaurant diner could decide when, what and how much to eat. Restaurateurs also sold themselves by claiming that they would restore the health of their customers as they ate, another idea revived by Itsu. Eat well with us. Feel well with us. Leave us and look well. Feeling well translates as having to make your own green tea and eating a sort of quasi- Japanese food, about which Itsu makes some truly extraordinary boasts, in pigeon English. Fat people are rare in Japan; obesity is a source of wonderment and confusion; heart disease is unheard of and life expectancy is the longest in the world. I'm not sure how Japanese the shiitake mushroom rolls were, but they tasted disgusting, bitter and raw. I felt my life expectancy shrink the moment they entered my mouth. Crab rolls with chilli dip were fresher tasting, but somehow bland, and stuffed with iceberg lettuce.

Perhaps the oddest claim is that Itsu dishes are good for you. Most provide fewer than 75 calories - not much more than a mango. This puzzled us. We thought that a) it was almost certainly untrue (the California roll, for example, was stuffed with a bland, fatty mayonnaise, and the desserts were a very un-Japanese creme brulee and "Tirami Itsu" - far more calorific, and probably less nice, than a mango); yet b) even a mango has many more than 75 calories; and c) even if the dishes do contain fewer than 75 calories, this can hardly be a good thing: you would need four times that amount to reach the level of the meanest Weight Watchers calorie-controlled lunch.

Many restaurants alienate their diners from the true source of their food. Itsu also estranges you from your own consumption. I need life-enhancing food. I want to eat healthily without the effort of sacrifice. In its bland, modern way, Itsu sells the dream that you can eat without your body playing any part in it: the dream of immaculate digestion.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Laughing all the way to No 10?