We find spice to entice at this modern, authentic Indian restaurant…
The streets of London have lost their festive sparkle now that Twelfth Night has passed, but no-one seems to have informed Masala Zone. Inside the Covent Garden branch, lights twinkle, incense burns, and the ceiling suspends covens of regally-attired Rajasthani puppets, the largest amongst their number appearing to swoop and dive above our heads.
The atmosphere is warm, and so is the welcome. Regional, authentic, and oft-changing across each venue in its small London chain, Masala Zone’s menu can be confusing to the uninitiated, but staff are only to happy to guide and advise – their recommendations often heavily biased towards their own favourites.
And that’s by no means a bad thing. Without their steer, we might have missed out on India-infused cocktails, fat, lightly-battered Goan prawns with an accompanying mayo, and a seafood biryani with an intriguing flavour – Coconut? Pineapple? Saffron? – based not upon rice but thin rice vermicelli known as idiappam in India’s South, and string hoppers in Sri Lanka.
We start with a wide selection of street-style snacks from an equally large list. A couple with a round of cocktails would be the ideal pre-meal nibble, but despite being just four, we have the appetite of 10 men and must immediately call for sustenance in more substantial quantities.
Chaat is the collective name for a whole host of head-spinning North Indian dishes that are explosive in terms of both texture and taste – simultaneously sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and tart. We rapidly demolish a mound of bhel puri – a crunchy, munchy rumble-tumble of puffed rice, chutneys, pomegranate seeds, and, here, the earthy sprouted pulses that so delight Delhi-ites.
Dahi puri and samosa chaat feature similar flavours in different assemblies; the former one-bite flavour bombs of spiced mashed potato and yogurt stuffed into crisp semolina shells; the latter a smashed-up samosa that’s Jackon Pollock-ed with various relishes.
We’re not drinking the bar dry but we are sampling a diverse collection of cocktails; from the big, bold Smoke & Spice, to a totally tropical Boxwallah Punch, to a delicate Hendricks-and-Prosecco 48 Floral Street named for the restaurant’s address. All prove fine partners for tender squid bhajias, and nuggets of Chettinad pepper chicken that force us to wield our cocktail sticks like swords as we dual for the final pieces.
Less well-seasoned gannets might feel a flicker of shame when their mains can barely fit atop the table, but not us. No – we merely stack and shift and rearrange until everything’s sort-of stable. And then we embark on a belt-loosening gastro-tour of India’s regions.
A finger-licking mixed grill puts us in the Punjab before the coconut-rich gravy of prawn Alleppey takes us down south to Kerala. Gujarati undhiyo is a festive favourite that’s all-too rarely found in UK restaurants, especially when interesting vegetarian options are in such hot demand. Combining a nonet of exotic vegetables including purple yam and green banana, served with a bowl of the comforting rice kitchdi that the menu likens to risotto, it’s one of my highlights of the night.
Instead of ordering specific sides, we share a Royal Thali; affording ourselves tasters of multiple dishes on a single tray. A basket of fluffy naan is totally extraneous, but we’d not be without it.
At the end of the meal our stomachs are groaning as much as our poor overladen table was to begin with, but of course there’s always room for something sweet. Especially when the list features not only the usual suspects of sorbet and kulfi, but also Indian classics including cheesecake-like mango shrikhand, that fudgy carrot pudding, gajar halwa, and not-so classics like the masala chocolate brownie whose plate I scrape clean.
We’ve chosen wisely and eaten well, but we still leave feeling that there’s far more to explore. Handily and happily, seven branches, reasonable prices, and speedy service make multiple return visits a very viable prospect.
Where: Masala Zone, 48 Floral Street, London WC2E 9DA
Bookings: To find out more or make a reservation, click here.