Friday, 24 July 2015
Masala Grill, Chelsea
I've had the good fortune to eat some very, very good Indian subcontinent food recently. But then, eating good Indian food in London is not difficult. Even before the latest wave of culinary fireworks lit by the Sethi family (Trishna, Gymkhana, the upcoming Hoppers) we had things pretty good - an embarrassment of riches in Tooting for Sri Lankan and South Indian, Southall for Punjabi (not least of which is the brilliant, er, Brilliant), the Pakistani grills of Whitechapel spearheaded by the venerable Tayyabs; we are, for want of a better word, spoiled.
In the context of such staggeringly high standards at the very top, then, it's easy to become blasé about achievements just a little further down the league. It's not Masala Grill's fault that it operates in a city where Gymkhana exists, or where Tayyabs' lamb chops are £6 for 4. Not everywhere has to be a groundbreaking reinvention of Raj-era cuisine, or London's best value tandoori grill. There is room for everyone, and we should be hugging ourselves with glee that we have the freedom to be so choosy at all. So with all that in mind, here's Masala Grill, brand new on the King's Road in Chelsea.
From outside, the building looks not dissimilar from a suburban dentists - that bland, boxy architectural style that was popular in the 80s doesn't really lend itself well to the restaurant aesthetic. But inside, they've made the most of the (huge) space with lots of nice Indian furniture and indoor plants, and right at the back there's a bright conservatory bit that's a very pleasant spot to hang out. Which is just as well because my friend was an hour late thanks to a bit of a miscommunication on the address and I had plenty of time to take it all in.
I like how posh Indian restaurants do mini pappadoms for snacking. I wasn't particularly blown away by the chutneys they came with - all a bit underpowered and Chelsea-safe - but they passed the time, a syrupy lime pickle, a soggy coriander-based one and a decent mango chutney.
Dahi puri were nice and fresh and the addition of pomegranete seeds to the usual tamarind/chickpea/yoghurt mix actually worked rather well. It desperately needed a bit more chilli, but as this was a feature of most of the dishes at Masala Grill I can only imagine they were playing it safe for the local audience rather than it being any kind of mistake. I do think, though, that anywhere attempting to tailor their product too much to what they think people like rather than just making the kind of food they want or like themselves are starting on the backfoot. I'm sure the people of Chelsea can take a bit of chilli just as well as the rest of us.
Crispy fried squid had a nice delicate texture and were completely grease-free but - you guessed it - needed a bit more chilli to make them good as opposed to just interesting. The little deep-fried (curry?) leaves that were sprinkled on top were great fun though, with the way they dissolved in the mouth.
On to the mains, and there was very little to complain about, even if at the same time there was little to scream from the rooftops about either. King prawns in a gentle tomato cream sauce were huge, bouncy and numerous, but then you'd hope they'd be at least that for £23 a bowlful. A yellow dal tadka had a good earthy flavour but the consistency was a bit thin; I like my dal to be nice and thick at eating temperature, not just when they cool down a bit. Saag paneer had the opposite problem - a good firm texture with none of the obvious sogginess that often afflicts spinach dishes, but with a sadly unremarkable bland taste.
Lamb chops very nearly made the whole trip worthwhile by themselves. Thickly coated in one of those brilliantly beguiling Punjabi spice mixes (garam masala and who knows what else), soft and juicy inside and - unlike much of what else we ate - with a good kick of chilli, they were everything I'd hoped they'd be. A dip of some sort of cooling mint/yoghurt dip would have been nice instead of a clump of sweet-dressed salad, but otherwise these were very enjoyable.
And the point is, I did enjoy my meal at the Masala Grill because, all said and done, it's hard not to enjoy food like this, fresh and colourful and served with a huge amount of charm. It's not their fault that this particular spoiled food blogger has found better value elsewhere in the capital, and the people who eat at Masala Grill won't - and shouldn't - care about that either. The prices reflect the area, the level of service and the setting, and judging by the crowds packed into the place on a hot Wednesday night in July, there are more than enough people around to appreciate that.
I was invited to Masala Grill