I’ve not traveled to India, but my children have. If you ask me to describe the sights and the sounds of the street, the flavours and aromas, the colours and decor and the hospitality of Indonesia – I could. But not India. In my youth I traveled to various western destinations of America; stopping in at Hawaii, Los Angeles, Portland and as far north as Vancouver in Canada. I could give you a synopsis of what I saw, tasted and experienced some decades ago. But not India. Until now.
When you can smell the aromas of a restaurant some 100-150 metres away from the other side of the car park before arriving inside, you know you’re in for a good evening. And thus it was with Mint Leaf. I had a free evening recently and felt like Indian for dinner and Mint Leaf was one of those places in the back of my mind that I had promised myself I would visit. At the end of the night it wasn’t so much Mint Leaf that I had visited – but India itself.
Located on the outskirts of the Palmerston Oasis Shopping Centre, Mint Leaf faces the car park for all hours access. So typical of Asian restaurants, it also runs a take away out of the premises as well, with patrons waiting for their take-aways seating at the same dining setting as restaurant patrons. But this place oozes authenticity – not any old décor and furnishings, but a fitout that has obviously been inspired by modern homeland restaurants. The seating area is larger than usual for a restaurant of this nature. The mock parquetry floor harmonises with the faux marble table tops, inlaid with gold leaf beading.
The dining chairs are not your oh-so-on-trend-right-now Tolex style metal chairs, but comfortable upholstered chairs in gold frames. The clean crisp lines of the white dining room are plashed with black and vivid green feature panels that tie into the better than average store logo. The dining area seems bigger than it actually is thanks to a minimum of fuss and decoration adorning the walls; the odd mirror and food based print here and there and that’s all. What more do you need?
In my mind the thing that sets Mint Leaf apart from its Indian counterparts is the lack of awards, gongs and testimonies up to 10 years old and lacking any relevance to the restaurant of today, all cluttering the window and façade and which appears to be the typical Indian restaurant approach to self-marketing.
The staff greeted me warmly and asked me to take a table which was quickly laid out before me. I can only presume it was laid in an authentic manner: the copper fridge bottles and other vessels with a stainless steel outer finish, the copper and stainless steel cutlery, the mixture of steel, porcelain and melamine serving plates, the courtesy hand towels that spring to life when soaked in water. The menu was plain and simple and very easy to read, which was a nice change from placards with fancy script and muted colours and generally unreadable if you’re any way vision impaired.
And from the menu this night I ordered the beef korma, plain rice and naan, to be followed by a kulfi and home-made chai. I was asked how spicy I preferred my sauce and thought I would start with a mild level spice. I don’t normally order dessert, but in this case I just wanted to see if they made their own traditional ice cream, or if it was store bought. In fact, I guess that was my main concern all night – how much was home-made, and how much was third party prepared.
The korma was served in its own copper/stainless steel pot, as was the rice, and the naan. I needn’t have worried about the authenticity of the food. After all, if the shop fitout and service ware is going to reek authenticity, why would anyone stop there? The korma had a lovely onion and cashew gravy which wasn’t too creamy at all, but the spice heat was non-existent; I hope they didn’t play down the spice level on my account. Swimming in lashings of gravy, the beef was to die for. Tender and juicy beef without a hint of fat or gristle – this must have been braised for hours! Whole spices and chunks of garlic started exploding in my mouth and I knew I was in for a treat.
The rice was – well, it’s hard to make plain white rice sound sexy, but it was perfect – long grain basmati rice without any sign of clumping at all. The naan appeared perfect as well; not too oily, not too thick nor too thin, and pre-cut into wedges for me, although I would have rather pulled it apart myself. All up, a very decent course. The portion size for one was excellent. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t finish the korma, rice, and naan and asked for the remainder to be boxed up to take home. A wonderful quick lunch the next day.
The kulfi was set in a long cone shape with the bamboo skewer which must have been used to extract the kulfi from the mould, simply broken off and left in place. The delicious kulfi was presented in a plastic cocktail glass and – as you would expect for an ice cream made from sweetened condensed milk – very sweet and topped off with a drizzle of even more sickly sweet strawberry syrup over. This was a real treat for those with a sweet tooth. Again, the portion size was spot on. The chai itself was not your usual chai latte powder or anything like that. This was tea leaf that had been brewed in milk and spice and served up with a pot of sugar on the side so that I could adjust my own level of sweetness. Alongside the kulfi anything tastes tart, so I added the sugar to the chai to match the level of sweetness of the kulfi.
By the time I had finished and went to pay the bill, I had been in the restaurant for just over an hour – I had found myself settling in rather easily and despite being located near the service counter, I was not particularly distracted by patrons coming in to collect their takeaways. If the hustle and bustle of the service counter bothers you, the second half of the seating area is quite a bit more secluded.
So, what do we have here… friendly and efficient service, short wait times between courses, family friendly pricing, food being cooked with the love that it deserves resulting in an explosion of flavours, and left overs to take home. Next time I’ll remember to ask for the hot spice. All up an excellent meal and night out.
Mint Leaf seems to be not just an Indian restaurant serving up great home-made dishes, but rather a portal through to India itself.