Though I do enjoy the feel of these new Indian restaurants, the sophisticated ambience and the near kitsch artistic exoticisms of their fashionable religious accoutrements, wood carvings and other objects one normally associates with Indianism, it does get a tad awkward when faced with the unavoidable indignity of having to soil your hands. I do not know how else people eat Indian food, I’d imagine with great inconvenience, sauce left over, the screech of cutlery dissecting chapatti, and restricted flavour combinations. The only time I use a spoon is for when I transfer portions from the serving dish onto my plate.
The elegance with which diners tend to enter, slowly depreciates as the night goes, and they forget themselves as people tend to, in the din of dim lighting and wisps of incense.
Indian cuisine is that of the home. Bread is torn with hands, curries and sauces amalgamated in the rolling and compressing of three or four fingers working to offer a perfect bite into a hungry mouth. It is comfort food at its most inglorious, celebrated with family and friends behind closed doors. But in a restaurant, there must be mutual understanding as to renewed notions of table etiquette, effectively the traditional being left at the door, in order for everyone to have a good time.
While this can be a deterrent, I often find it in actuality to be the most commendable aspect of the dining experience. With Indian restaurants on the high streets getting more popular, it is becoming more and more socially permitted to get properly stuck into a vindaloo, and have juices of tandoori chicken dribbling out the corner of your mouth as you rip into a garlic naan. I’ve seen Lawyers after closing a case, still in their suits, celebrating at Dishoom with masala lamb chops and fried shrimp, sleeves rolled up and collars unbuttoned. I like it; I like it a lot. And it is perhaps indicative of the changing times, the breaking down of socio-gastronomic hierarchies.
Having been to both Dishoom and Masala Zone, both strikingly similar restaurant chains, I have to say that in terms of the overall experience, I must side with the latter. If I remember correctly, my denigration of Dishoom was focused primarily on the service I received and size of the portions (this last yet unchanged) during a soft-opening which though warranted, cannot be used justifiably to summarise its character. I see now, through Masala Zone, what they are trying to achieve, and successfully so for the most part, though with the requisite indulgences of generous portions to which I am accustomed.
The Masala Zone in Earl’s Court demonstrates all the familiar tenets of Indian culture that propound it’s Indian-ness at a glance, yet still maintain an air of grace that elevates the norm. Backlit figurines, floating dahlias and candles in ornate pots of water, chiselled dark wood walls, and pristine furniture and interior décor, provokes the kind of ease and comfort that you tend to appreciate when eating out somewhere fascinating.
Maddy and I got a seat by the entrance, and were greeted with tempered exuberance by some of the most infectiously smiling staff I’ve ever met. The constant clamour and discomfort of incredibly busy Dishoom, the worry of overstaying your welcome, and the pressure of having to enjoy a cult favourite on someone’s passionate recommendation, is absent here. Masala Zone is refreshing despite its familiarity, preparing us for a meal that was splendid for the most part.
Before I go on to praise much of what we ate that day, I must say, as I seem to tend to every time I see the word ‘Goan’ on a menu, that I am always disappointed. Not because, necessarily, of the quality of the attempt but rather the blatant, unashamed, subterfuge that is engaged by the chefs in these restaurants. None of the supposed Goan items at Masala Zone, two of them to be precise, taste anything like what would be considered authentic. It isn’t riff either, a ‘take’ if you will on something Goan, but simply an exploitation of the fact that such flavours are largely unknown.
If the dishes are good, as they were at Masala Zone, then I suppose it doesn’t hurt anybody, but I do feel like if customers were given the real deal, they’d be so much more appreciative. Goan food is bloody good when done right, and they are not that difficult if the right ingredients are deftly incorporated.
For example, Masala Zone served us what they call Goan crispy fried pawns with a vindaloo mayo. Right. Scratch the Goan and the prawns were indeed crispy, light and nicely battered, and the mayo, like any generic chilli mayo, had a gentle kick to accompany a plain, fried protein. But if they wanted to keep the Goan on, then perhaps learn to make a recheado masala, or employ a Goan immigrant ‘aunty’ to teach you how, or even just buy her stuff in repurposed mason jars, then marinate your prawns in it, then bread them in semolina, fry until crunchy, and serve the end result. Easier still, pan-fry them in the masala, dump them in a bowl and you’re good to go. Recheado masala is the lifeblood of Goan cuisine.
And please don’t insult me with your weak attempt at Cafreal. While the pieces of chicken served on that plate were some of the most immaculately cooked I’ve had in an Indian restaurant, I cannot forgive appropriating the name of a dish that is legendary in Goa. Whose sauce I might add, is ridiculously simple to make: a simple masala blend of coriander, bird’s eye chillies, garlic and ginger, with some vinegar. What Masala Zone served me was weak, without the chilli intensity associated with the original, tasting like the generic North Indian kebabs you can get anywhere, bearing resemblance to the Goan original only in its colouring. (Sigh)…
The bhel and the dahi puri, which Maddy tried for the first time, were passable. The first as a whole was pleasant, well-executed tamarind and coriander chutneys intermingled in a pyramid of savoury rice-crispies that were ever so slightly stale. The second was lovely bar the addition of an irrelevant strip of ginger on each puri: crisp, flavourful balloon bursts of sweet tamarind sauce, yoghurt and potatoes, with fresh coriander and a sprinkling of chilli spice.
We gave the thali a go too, a large plate with an assortment of mini cups of sauce and prepared vegetables, with a curry dish in the centre with rice or a chapatti. Maddy was keen on turmeric cauliflower, enjoyed the raita and kachumber and scoffed at the so called Indian canape. The paneer makhanwalla went down a treat, smooth, mild and buttery, a dish no respectable Indian restaurant gets wrong in any case.
For what it is worth, the food at Masala Zone is good value for the money paid if you take some of the labels off. A restaurant that inundates their website with almost every authenticity buzzword imaginable should pay more attention to the truth of what they actually put out. I will probably go back again since it so close to where I live, if only for their grilled chicken tikka with a couple of warm rotis.
Location: 147 Earls Ct Rd, Kensington, London SW5 9RQ
Prices: Streetfood Starters £5.10-£6.40; Tandoor and Grill £9.00-£15.25 ; Curries £8.30-£10.05; Sides £1.50-£5.80