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All Things Spice

Published 11 June 2000
Style Magazine
361st article

Back, from left, Liah Lalvani, Marco Pierre White, Sonu Lalvani and Daisy; front, Michael Winner and Mati White (Miss Lid the Third)

I'm a bit short of Indian restaurants. I went back to the Bombay Brasserie following a hiccup, and after they apologised nicely. Sadly, I found it changed for the worse. The food always had a relationship with the basic Indian food I ate when at Cambridge University. Back then, a chicken biryani with orangey sauce and yellow rice was quite delicious. At the Bombay Brasserie it was more refined. But this time the food had got at too clever. There was something odd about it. Worse still, the room was full of men. Table after table of business outings. A friend of mine said she went there and saw all these suburban male yuppies getting out of a bus. A great pity. I used to like the Bombay Brasserie.

I read recently that Martin Hadden, who was chef at The Halcyon in the good old days, was visited 11 times in one year by Michelin inspectors to see if he merited a star. I think he did. They didn't. Similarly, I check and recheck places on your behalf. Little remains constant. So I'm happy to report that Zaika, which got my best Indian restaurant award, is still superb. Nevertheless, a little choice on the Indian restaurant scene is desirable.

So when Marco Pierre White invited me to Yatra, in Dover Street, Mayfair, I thought: "Good, another Indian place for my list." We entered a bar overfull of screaming people. I pushed through nervously to a strange room. One half had diners sitting close to floor level; the other half, where I sat, had normal-height tables with black tablecloths. A very charming man, Sonu P Lalvani, opened Yatra. He'd never run restaurants before. He told me Yatra is a Sanskrit word meaning sacred pilgrimage or spiritual journey. All I can say is that it was a very heavily booked pilgrimage in the bar. So much so that I told Sonu I couldn't sit and listen to that din. So he kindly sent them down to the basement, which apparently was not yet completed.

My napkin was served on a red cushion. Mati, Marco's wife, suggested this was in case you had too much to drink. If your head dropped toward the table, the cushion softened your fall. It was so bright that Marco asked for the lights to be turned down.

Sonu recommended a starter of chicken mince flavoured with galangal and kaffir lime, and moulded on a crab claw. I took one bite of it, choked, and my eyes watered. I coughed and they rushed extra water to me. I couldn't speak it was so spicy. "I've got water, I'm half-dead, but I'm all right!" I gasped when able to utter. Marco grabbed the plate and started eating my food. "Delicious," he said. Unfortunately, he gave rne, in return, his grilled fruits and vegetable salad, which I found appalling. Miss Lid pointed out my starter only had one pepper-like mark by it on the menu. "Some of them had three peppers," she explained. If anyone lives after a three-pepper marked item, I'd like to hear about it. But I did drink a milk shake-type thing called a mango lassi. That was exceptionally pleasant. Miss Lid started with a Yatra salad, which is a grilled parmesan tower with tiger prawns. She said nothing, which is rare.

The waitress, Daisy, dressed in a sari, came from Maida Vale. She'd previously worked in Queen's Park, but the place went into receivership. I'm not sure if this is vital information, but I pass it on to you anyway.

My main course was a mixed grill of tandoori prawns, chicken, lamb and "everything else", I dictated. It could have fed a family of six. It was what I'd call "glumpy". Plodding. Not terrible, not worth coming back for. Miss Lid had chicken with coconut sauce and rice pancake. My dessert was called Khekachelo's passion. It was mango based. Daisy said it was like a cheesecake. It had no good texture or taste. Sonu explained it was made by a very young man. That is no excuse. Miss Lid's dessert looked like runny yoghurt with nuts in it. Having finished, she said: "It was good. All that I chose was good." But as she often says what she chooses is good and, according to her, she always chooses the best, this did not weigh very heavily with me. "My dessert was a yellow colour, so it probably had the yolk of egg in it," she added helpfully.

I was not pleased with Yatra and this distresses me, because Sonu and his wife, Liah, are lovely people. They've gone from supplying catering equipment into the quagmire of restaurant ownership. I hope they do very well. I shall revisit in a year's time. If they're still open.


My husband and I spent some time in Marrakesh recently and took Winner's advice on Le Tobsil, which he had pronounced the best restaurant in the city (Style, April 2). We dined in the gallery level under a moonlit sky and were not disappointed. The food was superb, the service quietly professional and the whole atmosphere enchanting. If it weren't for Winner's column, we would never have known about it. We owe him a huge thank you.
Gina Hall, Calne, Wilts

Could Michael Winner tell us if La Mamounia hotel, Marrakesh, which he raves about so often, is the same one my husband and I have just returned from. Ours was an ancient dinosaur living on its past reputation, with indifferent service, average food and noisy package tours from America.
Sandra Levi, by e-mail

We recently suffered an extremely unpleasant experience at a local restaurant. It is an establishment that I and my family have visited many times and my husband had booked a table for us and our six guests. All was well until the main courses arrived, when we were horrified to see that my husband's dinner - a porterhouse steak - was accompanied by a fully cooked, full-size black beetle (unfortunately, I do not know which species). We had no wish to cause a scene and quietly called the waitress over. She apologised and replaced my husband's meal. However, not only did the manager of the restaurant fail to apologise, he avoided our table for the rest of the evening. To add insult to injury, when the bill arrived (about £200), only a miserly £10 had been deducted. I know that, had the above situation happened to Michael Winner, it would have been resolved straightaway. Given that we still wish to pursue the matter with the restaurant, what would be his next step?
Tanya Crombleholme, by e-mail

Should Michael Winner find himself one morning in West Wycombe Village, Bucks, I recommend that he stop at the George & Dragon Inn. The old coaching inn is owned by the National Trust, as is most of the village. The breakfast is totally historic, the landlord's wife is as charming as the setting, and the landlord himself is splendidly cantankerous. I'm sure he and Winner will hit it off.
Laurence Callow, Dubai