I'd been looking forward to reviewing Mint Leaf, one of London's most renowned posh Indians, for some time. I've been working as a drama critic for the past four years and, in spite of the fact that numerous West End productions hold their opening night parties at Mint Leaf, which is a stone's throw from the Theatre Royal Haymarket, I've never crossed its threshold. It's customary not to invite critics to guzzle free champagne at these jamborees because they might interpret such hospitality as a "bribe".
Funnily enough, I arranged to meet my friend Lloyd Evans there so we could go over the draft of a play we're working on--he's a drama critic, too, and we're both frustrated playwrights. For some reason, I'd pictured Mint Leaf as being this elegant, old-fashioned restaurant above a gentleman's outfitters and thought we'd have no difficulty finding a quiet little corner where we could pour over the manuscript together. Visions of Jean Paul Sartre and Jean Genet working on Saint Genet, Comédien et Martyr in a Left Bank café danced before my eyes.
Imagine my shock, therefore, when I was faced with two enormous bouncers standing on either side of a staircase leading to a dark, underground cavern. They eyed me suspiciously as I tiptoed past, though their presence became even more mysterious when I descended the stairs and found myself in a virtually empty nightclub. A few bored-looking Eastern European girls milled about at the bar--waitresses, apparently--but the only other customers, as far as I could tell, were an enormously fat American couple, the kind you'd expect to see in the all-you-can-eat buffet at Caesar's Palace. After I'd been standing there for a while, one of the Eastern Europeans slouched over and showed me to my table--the one next to the Americans, as it turned out. Through the murk, I could just about make out Lloyd, squinting at a menu.
I asked him what he was drinking and he said the waitress had brought him a Cobra even though he'd asked for a Negri.
"Can you recommend anything?" I asked.
"Anything but Cobra," he said.
After about 40 minutes, I managed to attract the attention of one of the Eastern Europeans and she drifted by, only to tell me that she wasn't our waitress. Well, could she send our waitress over? She gave me a curt nod, but after another 10 minutes, and with no sign of a member of staff, I began to despair of ever getting any food. By now it was 10.45pm.
Eventually, after bellowing across the vast, deserted plain that constitutes Mint Leaf's interior, a waitress appeared and took our order. We only had time for one course, so Lloyd ordered "Female Duck Breast Tossed With Sage Leaves" on the grounds that it was "the weirdest-sounding thing on the menu", while I plumped for "Lamb With Dried Fenugreek Leaves". They arrived with remarkable promptness--they obviously have huge vats of this stuff sitting around in the kitchen--and both were fairly desultory. Not a patch on the Rajput, for instance, my local Indian takeaway in Shepherd's Bush. Lloyd's cubes of duck breast were dry and tough, while my lamb was stringy and flavourless. I ordered some Naan bread, which was slightly burnt, and a portion of Dal, which was bland. All in all, a bit of a let down.
After we'd shunted our plates to one side, we decided to start working on the play. At least we'd salvage something from the evening. But it wasn't to be.
"What's that you're writing?" asked the American gentleman at the adjacent table. "Is it a musical?"
He'd obviously clocked us for a couple of homosexuals.
"No, it's a comedy," I replied.
"Oh really? I love comedies. Tell me all about it."
"Cheque please," I bellowed across the tundra.
No wonder I've never been invited to an after-show party at Mint Leaf. After an evening in here, I'd be bound to give whatever I'd just seen a terrible review.