It's such a leap of faith, going to a completely unknown restaurant in an unfamiliar town. Rather like going on a blind date with someone you've met online (or so I would imagine, she adds hastily). Their profile photo looks appealing, they sound as though they'll be fun and they seem to like all the same things you do. Then you meet them, and you can tell at first glance it just isn't going to work out.
It was like that with me and my latest date, Hotel Maiyango, a mysterious stranger I encountered online, while vainly attempting to find somewhere interesting to eat in Leicester. Judging from its website, the Maiyango has got it going on. A boutique hotel in the historic city centre, with a restaurant that has won gold in the Taste of England regional tourism awards, serving an eclectic, seasonally changing menu, using local ingredients, sustainably sourced fish and veg from the community allotment? Mmmmm, this could be the start of a beautiful relationship.
And then I had lunch there. The boutique hotel turned out to be on an arterial road, sandwiched between a Subway and a minicab office, and the unique, intimate atmosphere of the restaurant was hampered by the fact that the sole waiter and I were the only people in it. A bit awkward, as the whole place has been exuberantly done up as a Moroccan pleasure palace, a sultry temple of hedonism and fun. Every surface, including the ceiling, is covered with some kind of billowing draped fabric, or planked with timber. Lamps twinkle in the gloom, and loud, Buddha Bar-style souk-hop pumps from the sound system. It probably rocks at night, when it's full. But at lunchtime, with only two people in it, it feels like a deserted nightclub.
I waited for my guest in one of the enormous semi-circular booths – not so much a table, as a total immersive experience, in which the diner is obliged to sink into a heap of velvet cushions, like some kind of pasha. It was a business lunch, so – again – a bit awkward.
The waiter's warning that if we wanted a cocktail, we'd have to pick an easy one, because they were short-staffed, raised the spectre of the Fawlty Towers gourmet evening. But when the food started arriving, it was clear that there was an actual chef on the premises, even if he seemed to be having an off-day.
Dishes that read temptingly on a menu fragrant with Asian and Middle Eastern influences – saffron braised rice, tandoori paneer, curried mussels – bore no trace of any of the promised excitement. There was no umami savour in the 'soy-scented' pigeon breast, nor any whiff of the Maghreb about the 'tagine-spiced' rump of lamb. Various essences and sauces were undetectable, but both mains came dressed with the same dull garnish of carrot batons and sad-looking beans. In dating terms, it was like responding to a brilliantly witty personal ad in the London Review of Books, only to come face to face with an accountant carrying a copy of the Daily Express.
There were some basic mistakes, too.The tempura king prawn accompanying the slightly high-tasting seared sea bass had apparently been wrapped in roof lagging, and a starter of seared king scallops were variously sized – more like a king, queen and knave scallop. Worst of all, I found a long pale hair in my main course, and it definitely wasn't one of mine. "It's all beautifully presented," my companion Dom offered hopefully. But he works in brand management, and is practised at making a silk purse – or in this case, silk route – out of a sow's ear.
More cheeringly, we enjoyed the fresh, springy herbed bread, served with herb oil and rock-salted butter. And puddings were good – I loved my velvety Turkish delight crème brûlée, its rosewater-scented Eastern promise underscored by a dark chocolate sorbet. Other ice-creams and sorbets we tried from the daily changing selection were delicate and well-made.
Also commendable was the service. He may not have been rushed off his feet, but that one, hard-working waiter was a true professional, whose care and silver-service flourishes seemed slightly wasted in this setting. While he was out on the street, voluntarily flagging us down a taxi, I caught a glimpse of the chef, his long, pale hair the only thing in the place untrammelled by any kind of fabric or swagging.
Oh well. These things happen. It didn't work out for me and Hotel Maiyango. But that isn't to say that someone else wouldn't have a great time there, particularly at night, when it's full. The room is actually rather fun, and the food isn't awful, by any means. Just a bit... disappointing. So we aren't going to see each other again. I'm sorry; it's not you, it's me – I'm just not ready for a relationship.
Hotel Maiyango Restaurant, 13-21 St Nicholas Place, Leicester (0116 251 8898)
Lunch: two courses £16.50; three courses £19.50. Dinner: two courses £26.50; three courses £29
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 10 per cent, of which 6 per cent is compulsory. All service charge and tips go to the staff"
Side orders: More-ish Midlands
The Old Bakery
Puglian chef Ivano de Serio creates unpretentious, modern-European dishes with Lincolnshire produce – try the char-grilled Peterborough game with Parma ham and mash.
26/28 Burton Road, Lincoln (01522 576057)
Glynn Purnell's bold cooking includes dishes such as wreckfish with coconut milk and pork belly with truffle pear purée.
55 Cornwall Street, Birmingham (0121 212 9799)
Modern British cuisine served with minimal fuss – the emphasis here is on quality meat, fish and seasonal vegetables.
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