Recently, a friend and I went to one of the Las Iguanas chain restaurants on the Southbank. Iguanas calls itself a Latin American restaurant, but it’s a vague kind of Latinness that’s closer to foreigners ideas of what the Americas should be than anything real and refuses to pin itself to the culture of any one country. I often wonder why oriental and continental chains insist on embracing the diverse cultures of such huge landmasses when this only diminishes everything they touch.
The one aspect of Latin culture that Iguana had got down was casualness. After a good ten minutes gazing round like lost cows for a waitress, we realised that nobody would come. Eventually, I got up and went to catch a waitress to ask her if I could maybe have a menu. “Oh, right, here,” she said as though I’d stopped her in the street to beg for change. The A3 sized cardboard menu reminded me of a broadsheet newspaper, crammed with enough dishes and drinks to keep me reading all evening. The person responsible for putting it together clearly chose to forgo selecting good items to bombard diners with as much choice as possible.
A special offer for Tapas stuck out until I realised that the seven o’clock cut off had already passed. Instead, I settled for just two tapas dishes and a pint. I got up again, stopping another waitress to order. “You need to go to the bar,” she said with a friendly smile and a shake of her head. “We don’t take any orders from outside.” With a grim kind of reducto ad absurdum, I wondered how far this might go. Would need to go and collect my food from the kitchen as well? Anyway, with the food ordered and a pint in hand I went back to the table.
Beer does wonderful things for your appetite and I eagerly awaited the orgy of cream and salsa and crispy nachos that was coming my way. But not since my first kiss teenage has anticipation so far outstripped the outcome. Instead of the expected heap, there were a few chips scattered loosely across the wide white plate. If you’re going to serve a wartime ration of food then at least put it on a small plate so that there’s a chance people might be fooled into thinking they’re getting a decent helping.
Pizza Express had the sense to do this when their bases mysteriously shrunk in the wash one night a few years ago. But this sparse spread of chips was just pitiful. Nachos aren’t sushi or goats cheese toasts, and so you can’t really defend a miniscule portion of them by calling it high cuisine. But these were the other end of the spectrum. The nachos themselves tasted dry and papery. Some were covered in a thick layer of cheese that had the texture of dried glue and didn’t really taste of anything at all. In the middle of plate was a pot where watery canned tomato seeped together with cream and a vague green paste that would be difficult to call guacamole.
As we were enjoying this, the waiter brought out the plate of Calamari. These turned out to be four or five small squid which just about covered a (thankfully) smaller plate but still seemed to be taunting our hunger with how few they were. I stared at them bleakly, my stomach restlessly indicating that I was going to have to spend more money in an hour or so to give it something real to eat. Maybe they would at least taste good though.
Sadly, not so. They shared the nachos overwhelming impression of being turned in a microwave until they were warm and slightly soggy. The squid itself was overly chewy so that it stretched out and tasted much like an elastic band when you tried to bite into it. In keeping with their seaside origin they had been rolled around in what tasted like sand – small, grainy breadcrumbs that didn’t add any crispness. Only by rolling them around until they were covered in the mayonnaise could you get them to taste of anything at all. Directions Royal
Festival Hall, Festival Terrace, Southbank Centre, Belveder Road, London
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