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Namita Panjabi and Ranjit Mathrani are big players in London’s Indian restaurant scene. Their two restaurants, Chutney Mary and Veeraswamy, have well deserved reputations for serving quality Indian delicacies in elegant, plush surroundings. Now, maintaining high standards at these two heavyweight operations would be a Herculean task for most restaurateurs, but this is clearly not the case for Namita and Ranjiti. In fact, their culinary skill and passion for Indian food is so great, that they required a third outlet for their creativity!
Masala Zone is the result of three years of brainstorming, one year of research in India and two months of food trials. Namita Panjabi has brought together several chefs from Northern India to create a wonderful dining experience. The interior and exterior are both stylish and modern, and the menu is truly innovative. Also, the bill is much kinder to your wallet than its sister restaurants!
There are no real starters or main courses, but the menu is neatly divided to make life easy. Dishes arrive on the table as soon as they are cooked, which may confuse people unfamiliar with dining in Indian homes. I am certain my mother would approve of this seemingly random system because it means the food is always hot and fresh..
So, what’s the food like?
The Dahi Puri is four small puris, each containing chickpeas, potato, chutneys and yoghurt. This makes an excellent change to the lifeless poppadom offered by the usual Anglo-Indian “curry house”. The Bhel is a fresh “Bombay Mix style” dish, full of flavour and would get anyone in the mood for some serious dining. The Shikampuri Kebab is tasty with a welcome dose of coriander, but is not as meaty as I would have liked. Please note, that I am very fussy when it comes to kebabs! If you fancy something light and very different, then try the Tokri Chaat. This unusual dish was inspired by the street vendors of Gujarat, during Namita’s year of research. It is a potato bird’s nest filled with banana, grapes, pomegranate, cucumber, sweetcorn, and moong beans. This was a clear winner with my friend Iain, who described this dish as being a learning experience.
I am no stranger to authentic Indian food, but dining at Masala Zone is indeed a learning experience! When Prashant, the Assistant-Manager, told me that they serve salads and sandwiches at lunchtime, I thought how enjoyable working lunchtimes could be if I worked in the Capital. He even raised my interest in their many vegetarian options, which is an achievement when you consider that I am an unashamed carnivore.
The Undhiyo and Lentil Khichdi consists of a rice/daal mixture with a healthy portion of well-spiced vegetables on the side. This is a wonderful dish, and could easily be a whole meal in its own right. There are many other veggie dishes, such as the balanced Ayurvedic Thali, specially developed for diabetics.
Yes, noodles. There are four noodle dishes on this menu! What’s going on?
Each of these novel creations is a meal in the bowl, and replaces the standard rice with Hofaan noodles, handmade in nearby Chinatown. This is certainly a bold move, and clearly demonstrates that Namita is not afraid to experiment. I don’t know why I am surprised by this combination. After all, Indian peoples migrated to South East Asia many years ago, bringing back many novel and exotic ideas and fashions.
I also sampled the Malabar Seafood Bowl. This is a hot, rich, Thai-like soup with a generous amount of noodles, squid and prawn. The squid was cooked perfectly, and the fresh cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaf and red chilli made this a dish to remember.
The Masala Zone is lively place and attracts a mixed clientele. There were city types, businessmen, romantic couples, families and people gearing up for a night out in the West-End. I also spotted a lone Indian chap tucking into a thali. I know that such a man would not dream of eating anywhere alone if the food was not up to scratch.
As well as all the innovative dishes, there are some classics too. Look out for the Chicken White Korma, which must not be associated with the feeble effort offered by thousands of other outlets in this country. I was also very pleased that the Dhaba Rogan Josh passed the exam for an intensely flavoured lamb curry with flying colours.
You can easily eat a big meal at the Masala Zone, and enjoy a Swiss beer, for about £10 to £15 per head. This is stunning value considering the quality of the food and the location.
The service is fast, friendly and highly efficient. It has to be when someone as sharp as Namita Panjabi is casting an eye over the proceedings. She is clearly a lady who would not tolerate any short cuts.
I was very amused when she jokingly asked me if I was researching for another restaurant during my meal. I wonder how long it will be before the first cheap imitation to Masala Zone appears on the London scene? She is obviously asking herself the same question.
9 Marshall Street
London, W1F 7ER.
Tel: 020 7287 9966
Masala Zone is a smoking free environment and does not take reservations
Deepak Sharma, June 2001
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