I had to admire the chutzpah of the marketing guy who sent me, unsolicited, a pretty-generous gift voucher to spend at the newly-opened Soho branch of growing Indochine canteen chain Banana Tree. "We would like to invite you personally to come and try out our new restaurant in Soho!" went the accompanying email; "If you like us, blog it! - if you hate us - let us know, as we are all about improvement and value all opinions, especially yours."
Flattery will get you everywhere with me, and where it doesn't get you bribery usually will, so an offer comprising both was always going to be pretty compelling. If I felt the slightest hint of righteous indignation at so flagrant an attempt to curry my favour, it was swiftly dispelled by the mischievous knowledge that even if I did love the place I didn't have to write about it, and if I hated the place, I didn't have to not write about it - the very opposite of their desired outcomes and more fool them for sending out money willy-nilly. Talk about sticking it to the (marketing) man.
But such an expensive and potentially risky marketing strategy must have been backed up by as much confidence in the product as money in the budget and sure enough, Banana Tree was, well, pretty top banana. Conscious that readers might not take me at my word knowing that my presence there had essentially been bought, I took along my pal Nicola who, as a director of a high-end hotel and restaurant group knows her stuff and would, I knew, not hold back with her opinions good or bad. Guess what? She loved the place too.
|Photo used with kind permission of Greedy Diva|
Describing itself as an 'Indochina Kitchen', Banana Tree's idiosyncratically laid-out menu takes diners on a culinary tour of that region from Vietnam in the east, inland to Thailand and south to Malaysia and Singapore. We started with some Nyonya Achar - beautiful peanut and sesame-scented pickles, tasty crispy filo rolls with a punchy nuoc mam dipping sauce and a surprisingly delicious char-grilled aubergine half with aromatic caramel sauce. A sworn aubergine-denier, even I had to admit that served like this, eggplant was distinctly edible.
Poor Nicola suffers from that cruellest of afflictions, Vegetarianism, but her wretched kind are thoughtfully looked after here. Some dishes are confusingly described as being suitable for 'selective vegetarians' only, meaning that they contain eggs and/or fish sauce; Nicky erred on the side of caution and ordered the fabulously-named Thai Monks' Vegan Delight. A colourful fragrant stir-fry of pak choy, shitake mushrooms and tofu with garlic, Thai basil and vegetarian oyster sauce, it also introduced both of us to 'mock duck', a wheat protein-based meat substitute which looked, and I'll grudgingly admit tasted, pretty ducky.
I wanted to avoid ordering 'The Legendary Rendang' for the same reason I avoid staying in hotels that call themselves things like 'Splendide' and 'Excelente', namely that they're usually quite the opposite. But persuaded by our sweet waitress's enthusiastic recommendation, not to mention the endorsement of a Malaysian friend who'd visited earlier in the week, I went ahead and had it anyway and it was absolutely, well, legendary. Long, slow cooking of the beef in a top-secret blend of spices, the sauce reduced over time to a thick gravy, made the rendang a rich, sweet treat with just enough curry heat to stimulate without blowing one's head off.
This is the point in a post where I usually say something along the lines of, "we were stuffed but gamely soldiered on to desserts" - not so on this occasion. Our palates nicely tingling and stomachs not over-full from our savoury courses, Nic and I were both fancying something sweet to round things off and asked for a dessert menu, only to be told - to our great surprise and disappointment - that Banana Tree don't do desserts. None. At. ALL. Not even a banana split! They have proscribed puddings, sacrificed sweets, abrogated afters. Why I don't know, and nor it would seem do the staff, but it brought what had otherwise been a very enjoyable meal to a premature and unwelcome close.
With a serviceable bottle of rosé at £16.95 from a drinks list which also takes in cocktails, mocktails (groan), spritzers and raw juices, our bill came to a perfectly reasonable £55, and as this was just under the value of the gift voucher I'd been lured in with I'd guess that this has been worked out as being about the typical spend for a couple.
So a good meal and time were had, but one thing about the experience leaves rather a bad taste in the mouth. Because our bill was covered by the voucher, we left a cash tip so that the staff who had served us wouldn't miss out on any discretionary service charge, and later, closer inspection of the bill revealed that 10% service is indeed automatically added. I don't mind this in principle - 12.5% is the norm, as the title of this blog attests - but it occurred to me that I couldn't remember seeing this stated anywhere. Looking at the menu, it is there, but in tiny print in an already text-heavy section that most diners will disregard. Because of this, they'll leave unaware that the 10% 'will be shared among the kitchen staff, waiting staff and management'.
This, I have to say, appals me; I've always trusted that the 'service' charge I pay in restaurants is used to reward the (usually low-paid) staff who provide the actual service, not to provide a bit of extra cash for the kitchen staff and management who, although obviously involved in the process of getting the food to my table, don't have to put up with my endless questions/flirtation/general showing off in the same way as waiters do. If, as I expect I will, I visit a branch of Banana Tree again, I'll be insisting that the service charge not be added to the bill and tip the waiter or waitress directly instead. I encourage you to do the same.
Banana Tree, 103 Wardour Street, London W1F 0UQ Tel: 020 7437 1351 http://www.bananatree.co.uk