It's oh so jolly in Bollywood

Nice food, shame about the yahoo clientele at the funky new pan-Asian venture Yatra
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Arriving at a shiny new restaurant in the heart of Mayfair, it's rather disheartening to be greeted by a sign in the window reading, "experienced waiting staff required". Not exactly designed to lure in passing trade, is it? "Let's go there darling - they haven't got enough waiters!"

Arriving at a shiny new restaurant in the heart of Mayfair, it's rather disheartening to be greeted by a sign in the window reading, "experienced waiting staff required". Not exactly designed to lure in passing trade, is it? "Let's go there darling - they haven't got enough waiters!"

Still, Yatra, a new pan-Asian venture opposite Browns Hotel, offers plenty of other attractions for the jaded London restaurant-goer. It hopes to do for Indian dining what Momo has done for Moroccan, by reinventing it as a chilled-out, sensuous, clubby experience. A cellar nightclub (still under construction), will have a dancefloor and a cinema screen, Talvin Singh is supplying music tracks, and the whole enterprise aims for a funky, Bollywood sensibility. Despite this, we are led by Yatra's press release to expect an "atmosphere of serenity", which may or may not have something to do with the shortage of waiters.

There was nothing serene about the place on the night of my visit; the bar was rammed with roaring City boys and girls, busy putting the Bolly into Bollywood. According to the charming owner, who whisked me through the bespoke-suited scrum, they were Citibank employees celebrating a huge deal. "It's not always like this!" he apologised over the popping of champagne corks.

The smallish dining area, like the food, is a pan-Asian experience. The walls are painted in hot Indian colours, tikka red and cumin yellow, while a Japanese influence shows in lacquer trellises and a slate-studded water-feature. One half of the room offers floor-level seating, on the kind of legless chairs favoured by Momo; happily, this low-flying furniture was already occupied by a group of twentysomethings celebrating a birthday. Despite resembling giant toddlers at a tea-party, they struggled to look cool, the women's knees projecting above the table-line, and the men's suit-jackets trailing from the dwarfish chairs like Lady Di's wedding train. Not recommended for a business lunch, in other words.

We were conventionally seated at a grown-up table. Our proximity to the bar meant we were all too aware of the celebrations going on next door, to the discomfort of my companion, arts broadcaster Richard Coles, who has been losing his hearing since his days with Eighties band the Communards. Still, he was prepared to tolerate it, for the compensating stream of hunky men who filed past our table to the loos. "I can't see a City boy in a suit without expecting sex or violence - preferably both," he letched.

Ravenous after a hard afternoon at the National Gallery, he insisted that we order "huge piles of expensive things" from an enticing menu which is principally Indian, but with Indonesian, Vietnamese and Thai imports. The tandoor is used in imaginative ways - to finish off a roasted leg of spiced lamb, for example - and there are several Anglo-Indian dishes, in the tradition of the long-established London restaurant Chutney Mary.

Despite the staff shortage, we were speedily attended by our waitress. She even smiled obligingly when Richard undermined my attempt to pronounce the words "patrani machhi" with the poisonous whisper: "Beautifully done - no one would ever guess you came from Ipswich!" Patrani machhi, as it happens, is a Parsee dish, of haddock marinated in coriander, ginger and chilli, and steamed in the plantain leaf in which it's served. It looks vivid and tastes wonderful. Yatra salad offers a refinement on the ubiquitous Caesar salad, with creamily-dressed leaves, herbs sprouting from a Parmesan tuile and chunks of paneer (curd cheese) tikka, so dense and spicy that you wanted to cry, "I can't believe it's not chicken!"

Despite coming from Ipswich, I grew up with Anglo-Indian food - my mother's family is from India, and get-togethers always involved a selection of mild, comforting curries flavoured with fruits and nuts. Yatra's Railway Lamb captures the hybrid essence of that food exactly; somewhere between a casserole and a curry, it combines baby potatoes with tender, slow-cooked lamb, almost as gamey as mutton.

Richard was less transported by his curry of lobster and scallops; the lobster comes stuffed with over-fierce spices, while the slippery non-absorbency of scallops make them an unsuitable medium for curry. Side dishes included a glossy, brown-black dahl, paper-thin fried okra and a buttery naan, spread with fresh coriander leaves. At £4.50 a pop, though, you have to keep an eye on the extras.

We ended with a twin-set of cardamom and coconut ice-creams, and a tiny but powerfully rich portion of mango-flavoured yoghurt.

By now, the birthday party in the romper room was really hotting up; we realised things were getting out of hand when an insensible girl was dragged out, her arms draped over the shoulders of two stout companions. Then someone started throwing napkins, and soon the air was thick with flying objects, including the exquisite silk floor-cushions. The mortified owner intervened before beating a retreat to the bar.

In fact, all the staff disappeared, and we were faced with an interminable wait to pay. When our bill finally arrived, it was £50 per head, excluding alcohol, which is a lot to pay for a ringside seat at a pillow fight, however inspiring the food. It was rather desperate, really - there we were, in an expensive, stylish pan-Asian restaurant in Mayfair, and still a bunch of yahoos insisted on behaving like they were on a post-pub visit to their local curry house. Next time I pass Yatra, I shan't be surprised if the "experienced waiting staff required" sign has been amended with a pleading, "And does anyone know a good bouncer?"

 

Yatra, 34 Dover Street, London W1 (020-7493 0200) Mon-Fri noon-3pm, 7-11pm, Sat 7-11pm. All cards except Diners. Disabled access

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