The restaurant: Masala Zone Soho, 9 Marshall St, Soho, London W1F 7ER
Masala Zone has six restaurants across London. This made me think about chains restaurants and the trend among foodies to dismiss them. If a restaurant has two or three sites, that’s fine — anything beyond that and we’re suspicious of service and quality. That said, nobody squawks about Dishoom unveiling another tirelessly trendy venue or being served up an £11 Flat Iron steak at outlets across the city. With its first restaurant starting in Soho since 2001, six restaurants should be a sign of Masala Zone’s success. We paid a visit to the original spot to get a taste for why this Indian restaurant that specialises in street food and thali is successfully securing spots across the city.
There’s often a worry with Soho restaurants that you’ll end up elbow-to-elbow with the next table trying to eat dinner or shunted up against a boisterous bar crowd. Masala Zone isn’t one of those places and has the fortune of a warming and spacious layout, complete with fantastic cooking smells wafting through the room. Of a Wednesday night, it’s a good place to unwind in earnest anticipation of a good feed.
Starters are a great chance to try out Indian street food favourites. Four guppa pops, small deep-fried, hollowed-out puri bread balls, arrived beside a green-spiced and mango-infused jug of water. The spicy, crisp ‘explosion of taste’ delivered as the menu promised when we tipped the liquid into the puri and popped them down whole. Pao bhaji, a mash and veg street snack was a comforting, thick curry served with a soft white roll for dipping.
Masala Zone is renowned for its thali, a platter filled with a mix of food and flavours. With veg, chicken, lamb and prawn to choose between, each thali comprises of curry, papad and chutney, vegetables, lentil dal and rice. A smaller children’s option of veg or chicken is a great way for the little ones to engage with a selection of new flavours and eat what the adults are eating. Butter chicken was a good balance of tomato and creaminess — one of my favourite dishes.
Green chicken curry seemed an unusual item on an Indian menu but the creamy and fragrant dish came out on top with its tingly green chilli spice and thickly indulgent coconut base. Chicken saffron korma was nutty and delicately sweet, heightened with saffron aroma. The garlic naan was reliably non-greasy and great for dipping. Gajar ka halwa, the sweet carrot dessert sprinkled with pistachios and served with cream, rounded things off perfectly.
Don’t anticipate a quick bite after work. Masala Zone will draw you in with its street food delights and you’ll slip out a few curries later feeling you’ve satisfied cravings for the classics and discovered at least one dish you didn’t know about before.