Food: Eating Out - A late lassi
Soho Spice; 124-126 Wardour Street, London W1, 0171 434 0808. Open Mon-Fri noon-midnight, Fri-Sat noon-3am, Sun 12.30-10.30pm. Three-course dinner pounds 15. Credit cards accepted
Sunday 18 July 1999
Of course, some people eat before the show, but it can make you feel very leaden, and then the food gets blamed for every flaw in the performance. And, in any case, it's nice to wind down over dinner after the adrenalin of a show. The problem is the shortage of restaurants that accommodate this need.
There are the much-booked, much-coveted places such as Joe Allen, The Ivy, Le Caprice, and the Bombay Brasserie - and then there is Moon in Hammersmith, which we love because Ahmed the owner greets us rapturously whatever time we arrive (although I think last orders are officially 11.30pm). But I don't know many apart from these.
So when my friend Stuart Burge suggested seeing a play on Shaftesbury Avenue and then taking pot-luck in late-night Soho, my heart sank. It's probably just an age thing, but I've discovered that picking my way through garbage bags and pierced eyebrows in order finally to secure a cappuccino al fresco with an exhaust pipe up my nostril is no longer my idea of fun.
So I insisted on booking, and since Stuart was directing an Indian play starring Mahda Jaffer, we chose Soho Spice (last orders 11.45pm, and 2am on Fridays and Saturdays).
The 500-yard journey down Wardour Street was not without event. Since it was a lovely summer evening, I had decided to go for the very trendy dress-over-trousers look. My eight-year-old daughter had not approved: "Mum. That is like - so sad."
Nevertheless I had risen above this magnificently until, on leaving the theatre, I was accosted by a Japanese photographer intent on photographing my lower half. Eventually we managed to shake him off and continue our journey, past several vomiters and a rather nasty fight, before negotiating our way past the doorman of Soho Spice (who I imagine was there to deter anyone seeking 16 lagers and a vindaloo).
The interior is deliberately brasserie-style - all clean and bright with colour-co-ordinated matchboxes and balloons and spice-jars. A few waiters were swaying unconsciously to some very loud mixture of Indian jungle/rap/pop. The menu was smeared with strange meaningless ink patches, a bit like a programme for an avant-garde Hamlet, and featured a number of words by which one assumes Soho Spice hopes to be judged (red, hot, fast, fresh, zest, sensation, relax, enjoy). The overall effect is rather more Big Breakfast than Taj Mahal. The clientele was mainly young-ish, perhaps 30 per cent Indian, and the restaurant was pretty full at 11.15pm.
While we were waiting an immensely long time for my husband to join us, Stuart and I munched through several kilos of spicy poppadoms and sipped sweet lassis. I'm sure the waiter thought we were cheapskates, but he continued to be very cordial and attentive. Next we shared the "starter selection vegetarian" for two people. This arrived incredibly quickly (as did all the food) and was presented in the clean, neat style of the whole restaurant. There were small dressed salads, onion bhajis, fried lentil and vegetable patties and home-made cottage cheese with mint and pickle. It was all fresh and distinctly flavoured, and not so filling that you might regret ordering a main course.
Eventually, after last orders, my husband arrived, and without batting an eyelid the waiter brought Champagne and a delicately succulent peshwari kofta kebab.
All the main courses come with rice, naan, dal and a seasonal vegetable of the day. We chose not to order from this month's regional menu (Uttar Pradesh), Stuart opting rather unadventurously for charcoal-grilled trout and I for chicken curry with fresh fenugreek. The fenugreek would have been entirely unmemorable had I not dropped a large dollop on my outfit, but the good news is that I didn't stumble across any chicken kneecaps in the curry. My husband chose spicy queen prawns with spring onions - zesty enough but not exactly life-changing.
We were never rushed, though when a man appeared with a mop and bucket we decided that ordering pudding might seem a touch insensitive. Instead we had a leisurely coffee while most of the staff were probably getting into their pyjamas, and paid.
It was a perfectly pleasant experience, but I did feel that there was a lack of charm to the modern brasserie approach. That said, as we were leaving, the doorman did whisper in my ear, "Can I just say how ravishing you look in that highly fashionable dress ensemble." Or at least that's what l told my daughter.
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