Thursday, 12 April 2018

Masala Zone, Soho

Thanks to its conspicuous street-level floor-to-ceiling windows, and central-Soho location, the Marshall Street Masala Zone has been a part of most Londoners' conciousness since it opened in 2001. You won't have missed it if you've ever trotted into town to dinner from Oxford Circus, seemingly always busy no matter what time of day or night, and no doubt you've also seen their posters on the tube escalators advertising curry and rice with a beer or wine for a set price.

So, flashy tourist-trap locations? Posters on the tube? It's no wonder this scenester blogger stayed well clear of Masala Zone. As any self-respecting foodie knows very well, no restaurant within walking distance of Argyll Street that advertises on public transport will be worth anywhere near the prices they charge. No, best leave it for the gullible passing trade and undemanding tourists. All the more space in the queue at Bao for us.

Needless to say, I was completely wrong about Masala Zone. And the fact it took something as credibility-denting as an invite from a PR company to change my mind is just that much more garam masala in the wound. True, the prices are area-appropriate, and there are probably more atmospheric places to eat than a golfish tank squeezed under a hideous faceless concrete estate (the Barbican this ain't), but there's no denying the food here is thoughtfully designed and confidently delivered modern Indian cooking that you'd have to be a real curmugeon - or contrary foodster - not to appreciate.

Of course, if you are one of the aformentioned insufferables, you will no doubt be able to gleefully point out all the places that do all the things that Masala Zone do but slightly better. Yes, scattering the tomato and onion salad over poppadums doesn't achieve much more than soggy poppadums, and probably is a bad idea. Yes, the coriander chutney at Gymkhana is much more powerfully-flavoured. True, the pao bread buns at Bombay Bustle are fluffier and glossier. But all of these things were still polished off with ease - they were still way better than "good enough".

Plus, plenty of the menu at Masala Zone genuinely was amongst the best of its kind I've come across in town. Gol guppa could definitely give the Gymkhana versions a run for their money, the delicate pastry casings holding their shape no matter how much fragrant tamarind water our greedy selves decided to load into them.

And this sprouted lentil salad (vegan, would you believe) contained an intelligent balance of soft and crisp, and plenty of sharp dressing to compliment the pulses. Presented in a precarious tower, it collapsed entertainingly with the prod of a fork, revealing further ingredients such as chopped tomato and coriander.

From the smaller dishes, only Chicken 65 really suffered in comparison to versions elsewhere. Here it was a bit sad, tough and underseasoned, lacking the vibrancy and fire of the dish served at (say) Apollo Banana Leaf in Tooting. Still, it wasn't inedible, and itself disappeared soon enough.

Far more consistent - and impressive - were the larger dishes. "Idiappam Seafood Biryani" was a kind of Indian fideuà, plump prawns and squid nestling in a bed of thin rice noodles, lightly doused in an irresistably rich coconut curry sauce, which bound it all together without going sloppy. It was very impressive stuff, and unusual enough that I can't remember seeing anything like it before on an Indian restaurant menu. So full marks for that, too.

The mixed grill (usually chicken tikka, lamb seekh kebabs and lamb chops, as here) is a good control variable for any kitchen with a tandoor, and I'm please to report Masala Zone batted way above the national average with confident spicing, aggressive grilling (meaning the morsels of chicken were just touched with carbon enough to provide a slight crunch) and deliriously bouncy seekh kebabs packing serious chilli heat.

And I should also pay tribute to the Alleppey prawn curry, apparently a Masala Zone classic which matched more fresh prawns with a deeply rewarding coconut/turmeric sauce. This again wouldn't be out of place in any high-end Indian restaurant in town, with luxurious spicing and pinpoint seasoning.

So, consider me schooled. While it's true that thanks to their West End pricing, laminated menus and Aberdeen Angus décor the Masala Zone may scream "tourist trap" to anyone who didn't know better, there's genuine creativity and talent behind the cooking here, and anyone who dismissed it out of hand (that would be me, then) for so long missed out on some very decent Indian meals in a part of town where such things are in desperately short supply. And if some of the sting in the tail has been removed by my not having to pay, then I can only say I'd more than likely go back, and recommend it to others if they were in the area and in the market for some puri and a mixed grill. Clearly they've been doing something right all these years, and deserve to do so for many years more. Long live Masala Zone.


I was invited to Masala Zone, and didn't pay. The above was for 4 people and probably would have come to about £45 ish a head had we seen a bill.


Andy K said...

This is in the same stable as Amaya, Chutney Mary and Veeraswamy - so there is some pedigree there. I always remember the offal curry at Amaya as being one of the best things I've eaten. In fact it's a shame I haven't been for ages - the constant lure of the new...

Anonymous said...

How much is prepared on premises versus Pre-made and brought in? Not meaning to belittle chain food... but it is just that - skill is at HQ and marketing rather than restaurants. Should they be compared v restaurants that cook largely all in house or versus Pre-made grocery store foods?

Its me yet again said...

Always wondered? There are loads of places though nearby, as a visitor they will always win out.