9 Marshall St, London W1F 7ER www.masalazone.com
A now venerable Soho Indian restaurant has had a brush and polish and Nick finds the food and the prices are as good, if not better, than ever.
This place has been in Soho for fourteen years, almost as long as me in fact, and yet I’ve walked past Masala Zone a thousand times and never thought to go in. This night however, with Carnaby Street doing one of its discount promotions and so every pub packed so tightly there are balls of dark matter forming in the centres, four of us go into Masala Zone to escape the noise outside.
I’d heard the140 seat place had had a revamp, I remember it as being a bit simple and rustic when I last looked inside, but now it’s looking rather chic and sophisticated, especially with the newly installed Bangle bar near the door.
This seems a good place to stop and finally get the drinks we’d been gasping for and so cocktails it is. And, as we’re all Hank Marvin, some bar snacks too. My Chai Negroni is speedily served, one of the reasons I don’t usually do cocktails is the interminable wait for them to arrive while some arse shows off his’mixologist’ skills, and it has the classic Negroni flavours with that touch of Chai in the background.
P likes her Suntra Reeta, a kind of’Indian sangria’ she said and we all ate the snacks of Goan Crispy Fried Prawns with vindaloo mayo dip and Spicy Squid Bhajias with achari chutney. The bhajias were a bit soft, but nothing objectionable.
Seated we can see just how very big the place is, it’s rather like being on a cruise liner without the usual clientele of Midlands silver surfers trying to see what they can blag on the all-inclusive deals. The menu has been simplified and a nice waitress tries to explain this new concept, but none of us can really hear her properly owing to roar of conversations and her strong accent. We nod politely and thank her.
Basically you’ve got yer starters (called street chaat and grazing food here) and then thalis, grills, house biryanis and some curries. I fancy a Thali so go for rogan josh lamb thali, mostly because I know what rogan josh is.
First some starter; I always like Pani Puri because of the little ritual of filling the hollow shell with the liquid mix then popping it in your mouth whole. The fun is seeing ingÃƒÂ©nues try and bite into one instead; the mess is always immediate and destructive. Nicely tangy and crispy, these hit the spot. As do P’s chicken samosas, clearly not from a catering pack and properly made of pastry and full of chicken.
P was sold on the concept of the String Hopper Seafood Biryani, no rice but idiappyum rice noodles; a dish from Kerala apparently, although I thought it was Sri Lankan. The texture I find more interesting than standard biryani and the seafood is generous with balanced heat and spice. And at £15 well priced, too.
My thali, like all thalis, looks over generous at first but I like the initial greedy thrill of all that choice. The dal is richly textured and the vegetables tender but with some retained bite. I’d gone for chapattis over rice as I like eating thalis with my bare hands one of the few foods I don’t want cutlery for.
You can pimp your thali with extra curries if you wish but I find mine is just the right size for me. The chicken curry is easily hot enough for the quantity; any more might have caused sweats. In fact having eaten the whole platter I feel a strange sensation in an Indian restaurant, I feel almost healthy and certainly lighter than usual.
V powers through a Grand Thali and J goes medieval on a slow-cooked lamb shank that’s been marinated in Maharashtrian spices and then grilled. Both report happiness with their choices and we all get on with carafes of house wine. No matter what I am told, usually by people with a vested financial interest, I see no point in spending money on wine when it’s Asian food on the table.
Two of us have Kulfi (homemade) to end and it’s very good but then I do love kulfi. And I’m impressed by Masala Zone. The prices are still remarkably good for central London and the food easily a cut and a half above the average.
It’s all done to a higher standard both in taste and presentation wise than you’d reasonably expect for the money and despite the size of the place the food comes out at just the right pace neither dawdling so or with sense of your being hurried or harried.
Another fourteen years seems on the cards.