The last few PlayFirst "dash" games have been rather uneven in the quality department, so it was with a sigh of relief that I made my way through Cooking Dash. Fast-paced and challenging, colorful and charming with some new gameplay twists we haven’t seen before, Cooking Dash marks a welcome return to form for the series.

It also doesn’t hurt that Cooking Dash is the first game to star Flo herself (as opposed to one of her many friends) since the Diner Dash series. Not that we don’t like Quinn, Coco and the rest of the stars of the various"dash" spin-offs, but there’s something about the touching bond between Flo and Grandma that makes the two of them such great casual game characters.

One character you won’t see much, however, is Flo’s trusty chef Cookie. Through a story that unfolds in the usual way – via a series of comic book panels – we learn that Cookie has been poached by two TV executives who give him his own reality cooking show.

With no one to run her diner’s kitchen, Flo and Grandma brush up on their cooking skills and decide to simply do it all themselves. As a result, in Cooking Dash you’ll not only seat and serve customers, but prepare their meals as well.

To accommodate this new gameplay, the layout of the diner is slightly different. Customers no longer sit at tables, but at a true diner-style counter, side-by-side on stools. Most of the game screen is taken up by the spectacular kitchen area, which is outfitted with stoves and deep fryers, smoothie and ice cream machines, a workstation for Grandma to make sandwiches and other cold foods, as well as various dessert and condiment trays.

When a customer has been seated and places an order, as indicated by a picture of the food in a thought bubble, you must prepare and serve the food as quickly as possible before the customer grows impatient and leaves. This could be as simple as taking an orange over to the smoothie machine and pressing a button to whip up a frothy cold one, or as complicated as cooking spaghetti and meatballs.

Yes, one of the biggest – and most exciting – twists in Cooking Dash is that you get to actually cook stuff. To make the aforementioned spaghetti and meatball dish, for example, you have to grab some raw pasta and throw it into a boiler on top of the oven, then put some meatballs in a frying pan on top of another stove. The food takes a few seconds to cook, and you have to take it off the heat at just the right time. Wait too long, as indicated by blinking red circle, and the dish will start to smoke and burn, and eventually be ruined.

Flo and Grandma will be called upon to babysit other restaurants around town while their owners go away to be guest chefs on Cookie’s TV show. Thus you’ll get to experience a variety of unique restaurant themes that each offer different foods, from cafe-style submarine sandwiches and salads to Italian pizza and Japanese sushi and calamari.

In between levels you can purchase upgrades for each restaurant, which are divided into ones that improve performance (like more efficient ovens, a faster-moving Flo and coffee to improve customers’ dispositions), and aesthetic upgrades like better floors and counters that improve the shop’s appearance. (I would have rather had more nifty machines and foods than nicer floors, but to each her own.)

Cooking Dash is fast-paced; like the Diner Dash games, you receive bonus points for chaining commands together and seating customers in same-colored seats. The game is intelligent too – you can juggle two dishes at once and you’ll find that the right side dishes and condiments get sorted onto the right plates 99 per cent of the time.

In the game’s second mode, Endless, you can replay any restaurant with the goal of seeing how long you can last without losing all of your stars if customers leave angry, with the neat ability to buy upgrades at any time on the fly.

Restaurant patrons aren’t as over-the-top eccentric or interesting as the guests in other restaurant management games (one of our favorites is still the light sabre-wielding geek from Burger Rush), but they do have different behaviors and will get on each other’s nerves if you sit two incompatible personality types close to each other, like the conservative old man and the hippie.

Players who like their time management games to be fast-paced and even a little frantic will love Cooking Dash. The cooking portion adds a challenging new dimension to the gameplay, and the game has ample polish and fun to go with it.