Indian cuisine is enjoying something of resurgence in London at the moment, with everything from street food stalls to Michelin-starred curry houses staking their claim on the capital’s restaurant scene.
True, the tikka masala has always been a staple in the average Brits’ takeaway arsenal, and most of us can probably name a backstreet curry house capable of sating a sudden urge for a korma and peshwari naan at a moment’s notice. But renewed enthusiasm for the country’s spicy fare among London restaurateurs and foodies alike is helping to elevate the cuisine above that of a takeaway Balti binge (although long may this tradition continue), with chaats, thalis, pakoras and puris headlining menus across the capital.
The Sethi family, behind the trailblazing Indian Gymkhana and long-standing stalwart Trishna, were quick to the table in terms of sprucing up the UK’s relationship with the curry, with the success of their ventures proof of the capital’s appetite for upmarket Indian eateries. The family’s most recent addition to its portfolio, Sri Lankan street food den Hoppers, is currently setting Instagram alight with pictures of its egg hoppers (basically fried eggs shaped into baskets) which are filled with pork, duck or lamb ‘kari’. Hoppers might be snapping up the trendsetters, but they aren’t the only restaurateurs upping their game when it comes to Indian cuisine in the capital.
Masala Zone is perhaps a surprising example, simply because as a chain (it has seven branches across London) I tend to expect a certain level of cookie cutter catering and back-to-basics approach. This, however, could not be said of Masala Zone’s Soho branch, which recently re-opened following a massive refurbishment and overhaul of its menu.
Handily, my husband had visited the branch before it was revamped, which meant he could relay its stunning transformation first hand.Handily, my husband had visited the branch before it was revamped, which meant he could relay its stunning transformation first hand. Gone is the drab wallpaper, and in its place is a modern art-deco interior with geometric print tables, striking artwork and warmly lit dining spaces arranged over two levels. A sweeping bar has been installed at one end, offering a spot to sip its newly revamped cocktail menu while tucking into a plate of Indian street snacks. There is a dimly lit are slightly separate from the main hub of the restaurant, which I imagine would be perfect for larger groups.
Kicking off proceedings I ordered a Narial Punch, which was described as an “Indian Pina Colada”. Made with Ceylon coconut Arrak, pressed pineapple juice, coconut and condensed milk, chai tea syrup and lime juice, it came in a copper tankard. My partner’s almond and rose sour meanwhile came in a pleasingly heavy crystal cut glass and topped with rose petals. Poppadums in place – accompanied by a bright green pot of mint and coriander sauce, mango chutney and chilli dip – we were off to a good start. We proceeded to polish off a plate of thoroughly moreish squid bhajias with achari chutney and a two halves of a crispy fried quail tossed in coconut and curry leaves – posh fried chicken at its finest – albeit quail. Main comprised spicy duck ghee roast, a specialty exclusive to the Soho Masala Zone, served with a soft dosa pancake. My husband plumped for another Soho Masala Zone exclusive – the Kolhapuri lamb shank – slow cooked for six hours in a marinade of Maharashtrian spices. As the chain’s website states, there’s “no curry house food here”.
There are curries of course, which include the chicken mangalore – a spicy dish with kasmiri and byadgi chillies, coconut and lime – and the Undhiyo and lentil khichdi – a Gujarati dish comprising nine exotic vegetables including raw banana, suran, purple yam – served with Indian risotto. Another of Masala Zone’s specialties is the thali, which comprises six dishes served on a silver tray. Variations include the butter chicken thali, Alleppey prawn thali or the Dhaaba Roghan Josh lamb curry, which at £15 each offer plenty of bang for your buck.
The wine list is simple but acceptable, if admittedly a little lacking in flair. Bottles start from £19, with the Languedoc, Chile, Spain and Argentina featuring heavily. Its offer rises to a fairly reasonable 2009 Château Gaudin from Pauilliac at £52, and blanc de noirs Testulat Champagne at £45. Somewhere between a helping of creamed spinach and 500ml carafe of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (yes, all wines come by the carafe and glass) we were presented with dessert. Two pretty pots of kulfi – one a vivid green pistachio and the other a magenta-hued raspberry variation. We both noted the lack of punky penguins, coconut ice cream in half shells or any other staple pre-packaged dessert options of typical curry houses, with all of Masala Zone’s post-dinner options, we were told, home made.
Masala Zone is by no means playing in the big leagues of London’s Indian culinary scene, nor, I daresay, would it want to. But its Soho branch is far from a bland addition to a ubiquitous chain. Its small, interesting and carefully curated, menu is proof of its attention to detail and culinary ambition to offer more than the average curry house. I admit, I held relatively low expectations of Masala Zone on arrival but was promptly persuaded of its charms, not because of its shiny new interior or inventive menu, nor because its staff repeatedly offered to top up my wine glass, but because the food really is good. I have eaten far more underwhelming meals at far more esteemed restaurants than Masala Zone, and paid a great deal more for the privilege. Happily, we left with our bellies full and our wallets reasonably intact. I would not be surprised to find myself propped up at the bar tucking into a plate of Chettinad chilli chicken with an almond and rose sour in the not so distant future. After all, it is just yards from Liberty’s.
• 1 Poppadums and chutney – £2.50
• 1 Almond and Rose Sour – £9.50
• 1 Narial Punch – £9.50
• 1 crispy quail – £8
• 1 squid bhajias – £6.75
• 500ml carafe of Montepulciano, d’Abruzzo Angelo 2014 – £18.20
• 1 lamb shank kolhapuri – £16.50
• 1 duck ghee roast – £14
• 1 pistachio kulfi – £5.60
• 1 raspberry kulfi – £5.60
9 Marshall St, London W1F 7ER, masalazone.com