FOOD & DRINK / THE INDIA CLUB

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The Independent Culture
I WAS VERY taken with the idea of having dinner at the India Club in the Strand. The name conjured up cool white marble, slowly turning fans, even the possibility of a chota peg being brought to me on a silver tray by the man in the old Air India advertisement with upswept moustaches and a turban.

I put on a suit, found my old Gridiron Club tie from Oxford days, and we arrived in the Strand punctually at eight o'clock. The Club was on the south side, just across from the BBC World Service at Bush House and the Indian High Commission.

My first real doubts came when I saw that the entrance was up a narrow flight of stairs with a hand-painted notice offering accommodation at the Strand Continental Hotel, above, at pounds 23 for a single room, and pounds 29 for a double. At the reception desk on the first floor we were asked if we were looking for the restaurant, and directed silently up another flight of stairs. Looking through the glass-panelled door I realised I had allowed my imagination to run away with me.

The India Club is India now, not India then. How such a corner of authentic India could have survived so near the centre of London, untouched by economic pressures, and, it must be said, by the culinary fashions which have swept over other Indian restaurants here in the last 30 years, is nothing short of a miracle.

It could be a canteen for foreign students, and several parties of young Indians were having supper, one of them quarrelling stridently with a waiter about the quality of the chapati, a segment of which he was sending back to the kitchen. There were also a few bearded English intellectuals of hang-dog appearance, talking in muted tones to slightly exasperated-looking women.

The restaurant has white distempered walls, some of them hung with photographs of Indian politicians and scenes from Indian folklore, purple velvet curtains - in one corner of the window there were the remains of last year's Christmas decorations - metal-framed chairs upholstered in the same colour, and the floor is covered with a reddish-purple linoleum.

The real marvel of the time-warp only becomes obvious when you open the menu. There is a set lunchtime menu ranging from pounds 5.40 to pounds 5.60 a head. There is no wine list, but customers 'are welcome to bring alchoholic drinks' or can alternatively buy them from the bar downstairs by taking out membership of the Club. The annual subscription - members of the Garrick please note the position of the decimal point - is pounds 1.20.

Having cast an eye over the evening menu and observed a slight hardening of my wife's jaw-line, I decided to go downstairs and become a member.

The bar is looked after by the rather severe, henna-haired Doris. It has several glass shelves with quite a lot of near-empty gin and vodka bottles, the Babycham leaping fawn and several miniature carved wooden elephants. Initially Doris was a bit fussed about breaking a pounds 10 note, prowled about saying 'Damn]', and blamed ' 'im out there' - the Indian receptionist - for having taken all her change.

Back upstairs with a pint and a half of lager we gave our order to a young waiter in a white jacket with a thick black moustache and a dazzling, almost seraphic smile.

We ordered one portion of Tandoori chicken, one of Mughlay chicken - the only alternative being various kinds of lamb, which from a glance at what the back-packers were carving on the next table didn't look particularly exciting - some mushrooms, okra, potatoes and spinach, and pilau rice, with mango chutney.

The waiter told us about the political portraits on the walls: V K Krishna Menon (one of Nehru's associates in the independence movement and the first Indian High Commissioner to London), he seemed pretty sure, often used to eat there. Mahatma Gandhi - he laughed a good deal - perhaps not.

The food came. The Tandoori chicken was good though plainly presented, an ungarnished leg lacquered purple to match the room, and the Mughlay contained a surprise, which gave my wife a turn, in the form of a tooth-shaped piece of bone. The vegetables were like they used to be in Indian restaurants in the Fifties, cooked without subtelty or affectation. My wife gave up soon after the 'tooth' incident, but I perservered. The dessert menu seemed to have been replaced by a selection of colour photographs, showing various kinds of Indian ices. I asked for mango, and got what appeared to be half an imitation mango-skin filled with vivid yellow ice cream. It definitely tasted of mango.

My wife by this time was getting a bit satirical, and wanted to go upstairs to ask to see one of the rooms at pounds 29 a night, but I managed to distract her by asking the rotund manager, in a short-sleeved green Aertex shirt, about the history of the club. Its president, we were told, was the figure in the group photograph, the former British Member of Parliament Julius Silverman.

It had been founded 50 years ago - Doris has been there 37 years - as the headquarters of the India League, to promote Anglo-Indian understanding. It was a non-charitable, profit-making club. No, sorry, he corrected himself, a charitable, non-profit-making club. It gave away any money it made, apparently evenhandedly, to worthwhile causes in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

This rather spiked my critical guns. The food had not been spectacular, though I was less lurid in my analysis of it than my wife. But after all, they are practically giving it away. The bill for two, including the beer and my club subscription, came to pounds 31.20. And charity is charity.

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