They say restaurants are the new entertainment, and I suppose that, for a nation whose idea of a leisure pursuit is a day in Ikea shopping for out-of-stock flat-pack furniture, food might be the least important part of eating out. Compared to driving off to an urban wasteland and buying several useless objects which all sound like variations of slang for the female pudenda - taking a taxi to Mayfair to admire the interior design of a restaurant seems positively sane. But though I'm all for destination dining - it is kind of nice when the kitchen isn't there just for decoration.
Food really shouldn't be a lacklustre, optional extra after the concept, the architect, designer, the PR, the party, the photographer, the perfume girl in the loo and the groovy, themed press releases. Yes, look - we went out for dinner and this sweet little match box. Here, let me strike one for you.
Yatra, sadly, is a case in point. Designed to within an inch of it's short life - it still misses the spot. The distressed walls look like artex covered with red sealing wax - like modern flock. A lot of men in ponytails and collarless grey shirts have spent a lot of time on details such as the menu match the paint work, and providing fussy little cushions on the plates for the napkins to rest on (what the hell is /that-italics/ about?) But they seem to have forgotten that the whole point of going out to eat is that, at some time during your visit, you might actually expect to put something in your mouth. Apart from your fist.
You can chose where to sit - at a table like the grown ups, or more adventurously on low cushioned chairs at floor level which might appear more opulent and decadent if the tables weren't placed in rigid rows. If only I hadn't worn my slit to the thigh skirt, I might have taken the low road, but - without recourse to mechanical aid to get me back on my stilettos, it was never really an option. My companion and I would have been there still, like two beached whales.
The menu is eclectically S.E. Asian. Yatra, according to our waiter, means a journey - a culinary journey through Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Vietnam and Thailand. A whistle stop tour taken by someone who never actually left the bus, it seems to me.
However, there is no reason not to expect the food to be reasonable. The menu is pleasingly short and uncomplicated if a tad diverse, and just for a change, the chef isn't French but from Northern India. According to the press release, the restaurant aims to be trying to break away from the more traditional Indian dishes which can be assembled at home by any 'housewife'. So there you are, get your pinnie off sweetie, you're a stereotype. Forget footling about with authentic spices and be original - trek down to Yatra and try some tandoori Scottish salmon marinated in mustard dominated spices.
My companion started with Patrani Machhi - haddock marinated in coriander, chillies and lime juice, steamed in a plantain leaf. Fresh and straightforward - it tasted pleasant enough, though the fish hadn't absorbed any flavour from the herbs, and didn't appear to have been marinated. Unfortunately, neither had the plate. It had big greasy finger marks along the rim,
I had Batata tikka - spicy potato cakes, with the same finger mark garnish and an unexpected portion of food adhering to the underside of the plate. Both dishes were returned , redone and served on clean crockery. Again, my potato cakes were on the agreeable side of bland though my appetite had palled slightly.
Next I had marinated monkfish with a good but simple cucumber salad. The fish arrived cold and flavourless, took the long journey back to the kitchen to warm up, but returned equally tepid, dry and inedible.
My companion had Railway lamb - supposedly an Anglo Indian speciality which must be a contradiction in terms. It should have been good - lamb cooked in coconut and spices, served with spinach - it all the intent of a good dish but lacked enough will to carry it off. Anodyne, he said. Anadin, I thought. Two. Now. And another glass of wine.
God help us, we gave up, threw in the turban and couldn't even think about pudding. The poor staff were fluttering around us as anxiously as turkeys at a Christmas party. Without being asked they automatically deducted all but one dish from the bill, apologised profusely and generally behaved like seasoned troupers in the face of enemy fire. Lovely people, you can't help but feel bad for them - they deserve better.
Some places should just forget about food and serve those dummy plastic plates they have in Japanese restaurants. Then you can still get dressed up in the new frock, air kiss the people who aren't really your friends sitting in Siberia, gossip smugly about their low social status and pretend to have seen a B list celebrity at the bar.
Then you can stop on the way home and get an Indian take away.