Oh dear. As I was seated at my table in the Cinnamon Club, waiting for my lunch date, it slowly began to dawn on me that I was inappropriately dressed. I was the only man in there not wearing a suit. Indeed, I was one of the few men not wearing a tie. The rest of the world may have embraced casual dress, but in the darkened alleyways surrounding the Houses of Parliament the dress code hasn't changed since the Second World War. The Cinnamon Club is one of the most fashionable restaurants in Westminster and, as such, is completely out of step with the modern world. Looking around at my fellow diners, I reflected that the old adage still holds true: Politics is show business for ugly people.
On the other hand, this did mean that my dining companion--a gorgeous foreign correspondent called Charlotte--was the best-looking woman in there by a factor of about 10. There are few sweeter pleasures in life than sitting at the back of a restaurant and watching people's heads turns as a beautiful woman makes her way towards your table. As Charlotte swept past the assembled diners, her blonde tresses cascading behind her, I thought that several of them might actually fall off their chairs. Within seconds of her arriving, an ex-lobby correspondent of my acquaintance came sidling up and tried to engage me in conversation while brazenly staring at her cleavage.
The Cinnamon Club is one of the new breed of large, upmarket restaurants masquerading as private members clubs. Like Sketch, it has a private members bar with extended licensing hours in the basement, but you don't need to sign up in order to book a table upstairs. No expense has been spared in converting what used to be the Old Westminster Library on Great Smith Street into a 180-seat restaurant. A grade II listed building, the interior has been redone with Indian marble and stone imported from Rajasthan and parquet flooring throughout. If this is beginning to sound like a press release, forgive me. If you strip away the ostentatious facade, the Cinnamon Club is essentially a very posh Indian.
And by "posh" I do mean expensive. The founder of the Cinnamon Club is Iqbal Wahhab who is canny enough to know that, when it comes to lunch, MPs rarely worry about the size of the bill. Why? Because they almost never have to pay. On the day I went there, the place was full of MPs busily working their way through £25 plates of curry as lobbyists sat opposite them, nervously fingering brown envelopes in their breast pockets. This means that ordinary folk can occasionally be caught out. The Cinnamon Club recently enjoyed 15 minutes of fame when Andy Gilchrist, the leader of the firefighters union, entertained three people to dinner and ran up a bill of over £800. Charlotte, who works for the paper that broke the story, assured me that the leak didn't come from the restaurant.
So just how good is the food? The owner has gone to great lengths to get this right, importing an executive chef from a luxury hotel in Jaipur, and the results are pretty impressive. As a starter, I had a crab risotto with a truffle cappuccino sauce that was excellent, but my main course, a mutant king prawn in coconut and mustard sauce, was a little on the rich side. Charlotte had seared tuna to start with and baby aubergines in a peanut and mint sauce as a main and was perfectly content. It wasn't the best Indian food I've ever had--that accolade belongs to the Noor Jahan 2 in Bayswater--but it was a step up from the local curry house in Shepherd's Bush.
As I left, it occurred to me that there are some compensations for putting in all those long hours at Westminster. On the other hand, I can't think of an MP who has a research assistant as pretty as Charlotte. It's probably just as well. If she started wandering around the corridors of the House of Commons some of the more elderly members might have a stroke.