I was amused by my own comic entrance, but nobody else was. Indeed, nobody except the waiter paid the slightest attention. I was able to slide unnoticed behind a corner table without breaking anything else and make a few notes about the decor and clientele before my guests arrived.
Sloan's was originally a very good fish restaurant. When I ate there last, two or three years ago, it still had an excellent reputation at the snootier end of Birmingham. Now, it appears to have been taken over by someone who has spent a good deal of money on it.
The floor is paved with pale orange tiles ornamented with diamonds of turquoise; the same colour, slightly more strident, has been chosen for the waiters' shirts and the cushions on the bamboo-style, round-backed chairs. The pale yellow ceiling is starred with bright lights, the walls hung with furniture-store Impressionists done in some kind of electric blue stucco.
There is a massive central pillar clad in mirrors, surrounded by tall, thin bottles in various other vivid colours containing what could be anatomical specimens. They are, I think, gherkins and olives. There are also very tall, thin bottles of wine and boxes of Italian cake.
The Ladies and Gents have the words "Sloan Rangers" and "Hooray Henrys" painted outside in pink.
Apart from one long table, which seemed to be the setting for a demure office party featuring a couple of prosperous Sikh businessmen in turbans, the restaurant was not very busy. I was just musing on the Birmingham fashion for plain blue and plain red jackets for men's evening wear when my guests arrived.
I had not seen my father's god-daughter for the best part of 25 years, and I was keen to present myself to her and her husband as a bon viveur of taste and sophistication. I should not have chosen Sloan's. I had forgotten how much she laughed, and I rap i dly became the object of ridicule.
They accepted the idea of a bottle of white and a bottle of red - prices range from £8.50 to £17.50 a bottle. I confidently chose a Muscadet and an Australian Chardonnay from somewhere in the middle, but the moment the menu arrived my god-sister started poking fun. Why, she wanted to know, was the duck called "French Duck"?
The Italian head waiter explained that this was to give the menu "a European flavour." This led me to ask whether Sloan's was not an odd name for what appeared to be an Italian restaurant. He became conspiratorial. The reason, he explained in an undertone, was that there was another Italian restaurant a couple of doors away. "They notta too keen on this idea," he said. That was why they advertised "English and Continental Cuisine" - and, presumably, why the duck was French.
From then on it was all downhill. I had "Mussels served with fresh basil", which turned out to be mussels with a thick tomato-based paste. My guests laboured, with no great show of enthusiasm, over a spinach salad and some of the most rubbery pasta I have ever encountered. Even this took a very long time to come, and my sense of inadequacy as a host was increased by one of the waiters who passed the table at intervals, juggling with a pepper grinder and doing his Placido Domingo impersonation.
I began to brood on the Latin words printed across the top of the menu: De gustibus non est disputandum ("There can be no argument about taste"). If those who had painted the lavatory signs were responsible for that motto, I suppose they could be forgiven for not knowing what it meant. Perhaps they did understand what it meant. Were they simply flicking two fingers at the whole notion of criticism, and at me in particular?
My god-sister kept us entertained like some heroine of the Blitz, speculating on the relationship of the Flash Harry figure at the next table with his mascara-lidded companion. But I began to feel more and more personally responsible for the decor, the lighting, the proprietor's ill-advised recruiting forays into the ranks of the Birmingham unemployed. Our main courses arrived at 10.30pm.
All three plates looked as though they had been used as target practice by a Sixties action painter working in dry poster colour; their wide white rims were spattered with patches of red powder and green choppings. I had ordered monkfish, which came in grey chunks reminiscent of the morning after at a Chinese take-away. One French duck breast "served with fresh basil on a bed of tomato coulis" didn't seem to be served with anything much at all, and was seriously undercooked and tough; the othe r was overcooked, its red wine and juniper sauce actually burnt. If I belonged to the New Brutalist rather than the New Naive school of restaurant criticism, I think I might even have made a scene.
As it was, when the Placido Domingo impersonator came over and asked in mid-song, "`joy your meal?" I overcame the inhibitions of a lifetime, looked slightly severe and said, "Not particularly." I explained that we couldn't really wait for any more - thepudding menu, perhaps to maintain the Classical tone, was headed In Flagrante Delicto - and asked for the bill. Apart from a couple of drinks we hadn't had, which the head waiter very decently struck off, I could find no fault with it.
If there had been only two of us, and had we drunk only one bottle of wine between us, the evening would have cost just over £45, with a 10 per cent service charge included.Reuse content