Despite the popularity of Indian food in the UK, it’s taken a while for a curry chain to join the Pizza Expresses and Thai Squares on our gastronomic landscape. This was a gap in the market Masala Zone has filled admirably, with branches across London from Islington to Fulham.
Their approach is slick and trendy, updating the curry house concept for the wine bar generation and it works surprisingly well – although perhaps not so surprising when you considering it’s the brainchild of Ranjit Matharni, Namita Panjai and Camellia Panjabi, the trio behind Chelsea’s legendary Chutney Mary.
The menu (common to all branches) contains all the usual curry house staples you’d expect, from thalis to biriyanis to chicken tikka and roghan josh, at prices appropriate to both a typical Indian and a restaurant chain – starters from around £4 and main courses from £7 upwards. Unique touches that add character and interest to the experience include a starter selection (subtitled ‘grazing food’) based around the subcontinent’s street snacks, includingdhai puri (hollow biscuits filled with chick peas), shikampuri kebab (minced lamb patties stuffed with herbs), and gol guppa (lentil and tamarind stuffed biscuits), and cold, lighter starters that make a perfect summer snack or light lunch.
Moving onto the main course, the extremely reasonable thalis (£8.15-£11.30, depending on whether you want the equivalent of one course or two) incorporate the curry of your choice into the selection of rice, side dishes and chutneys; the sides change every day to ensure the menu doesn’t become stale. An excellent selection of vegetarian, chicken, lamb and prawn dishes to choose from, at varying strengths, provides plenty of options.
The young, friendly and enthusiastic staff help to add to the evening’s ambience, ready and willing to explain the menu to those who need a little help, advise on combinations, and offer warnings on the chili content of diners’ choices. It’s a winning formula – great food, good surroundings, welcoming staff and drinks list that offers wine, Indian and European beers, juices and lassis.
Indo-Szechwan noodles, tandoori grills, and biriyanis round off a menu that’s versatile and appetizing, adaptable to lunch, dinner, evening drinks with sharing platters or even an office party, all in airy, surroundings that (in the Fulham branch at least) seem to stretch back for miles. The restaurants also double as art spaces – in the case of Fulham, displaying canvases painted in the style of Rajasthani 18th century frescos. Visit all the Masala Zone chain and you’ll get a tour through Indian art history at the same time. How’s that for a deal?