Table Manners - The Mint Leaf
Appearances can be deceptive. Take the imposing Georgian building at the bottom of the Haymarket in London. It looks like a bank, but enter through a side door, guarded by a solitary doorman, and you walk one flight down to the lobby of Mint Leaf restaurant, complete with lotus leaves in pools of water and dark, lacquered wood tickled by ambient mandarin lighting.
Set up to bring a touch of West End class to the all too takeaway curry, it takes its culinary lead from the north of India, but by ambience could easily be in Bali (minus the bright, blue skies).
Our evening began with cocktails in the bijou bar, but when our waitress took us into the restaurant proper, well, appearances went ballistic. This place is huge! Yet, manages to feel intimate. In fact tables are set so far apart it’s impossible to eavesdrop (a favourite restaurant past-time). Trying to see what others were eating proved futile, so we let our effervescent waitress direct us knowingly to a range of starters that included a sumptuous tamarind-glazed jumbo quail and a blood-cleansing medley of vegetables with tangy pineapple chutney; great for my veggie companion. Mains of fish and meat-based dishes – jumbo prawns in chilli and ginger; boneless curried chicken in masala; a tender roasted rack of lamb in spicy yoghurt - were brought and ranged around the vast table, and that’s when it struck me how monotoned it all was; a sea of orange, with not a whiff of red or green in sight.
Mint Leaf will probably never win awards for culinary inventiveness (although the combination of cottage cheese simmered in fenugreek was an experiment not quite realised), but whereas Heston Blumenthal can spend two weeks cooking up an artful spaghetti sauce elsewhere, Mint Leaf attracts a heavy quota of hungry Indian patrons, which is always a sure sign that it is getting the basic blends of delicate spices exactly right.
We love: The space, that wood! We loathe: The bill (but don’t we always) – pretty hefty with wine.
Suffolk Place, Haymarket, London SW1. T: 020 7930 9020.
Chutney Mary is an Indo-European fusion, from the Bombay Blush Prosecco and Rose Syrup cocktail aperitif to the MOR classic’s being played on an electric piano, the silk pictures and confectionary-coloured cushions on the sofas in the downstairs conservatory and the presentation of the dishes. All Masala World’s eateries employ specialist chefs to create dishes combining quality, authenticity and contemporary trends in food with designer presentation, and from Chutney Mary’s set lunch, a spicy, smooth apricot cheese Paneer Aur Khubani kebab went well before a chicken Lasooni Murgh Tikka. Its blend of spices and rhubarb chutney made it a melt-in-the-mouth experience. My partner’s light Goan fish and coriander ? segued to a superb fall-off-the-bone osso busso Punjabi Nalli Goshi curry. Some main dishes come ? rice or potatoes, but do ask. From a list of specially chosen wines, we opted for an Alto-Adige ? 2004, whose floral tunes, complemented the pungent spices. We can also recommend Chutney Mary’s a la carte tandoor mains, but save room for an a la carte Chocolate Fondant dessert with ? blossom Lassi. It’s been voted the best in Europe, and we can vouch for that!
We love: Chocolate dessert, chocolate dessert and more chocolate dessert! We loathe: That electric piano.
535 King’s Road. London SW10. T: 0870 780 8136
Masala Zone:The Masala Zone restaurants cater for a more laid-back budget crowd, and aim to create a rural Indian ambience alongside culinary authenticity. Each branch has artwork created either on site or in India by rural artists, lending a rough-and-ready atmosphere to the experience of eating street food dishes or thalis. Seated at the back of the restaurant, which is better for bigger parties and more spacious, we started with a ? of veggie/meat options – crunchy Bhel salad, Dahi Puri, Spinach Leaf Bhakia Chaat and Aloo ? and Shikampuri Kebab – surrounded by a multi-coloured frieze depicting the capture of a tiger ? Zoo. We followed with thalis, the traditional Indian way of eating – the taster bowls of ? are best eaten with your fingers. A mixed berry Lassi (smoothie) or a Nimboo Pani (Indian-style ?) makes a great aperitif, and a Srikhand (strained youghurt with saffron) finished it off nicely. An added bonus was our lovely smiley waiter who was knowlegable about all the dishes. With a large selection of vegetarian and meat mains, it’s a warmly relaxing way to spend an evening with friends. Tasty and fun.
We love: Street food for less than a fiver. We loathe: Slumming it…
147 Earl’s Court Road, London SW5. T: 020 7373 0220 (Other branches across London).
Andrew Copestake / Bryony Weaver