They say that location is everything. With this maxim in mind, one can understand the recent move of the much-loved ‘Chutney Mary’ to the West End. With few other fine dining establishments in the area specialising in Indian cuisine, there exists a golden triangle of opportunity between Amaya (Belgravia), The Cinnamon Club (Westminster) and Benares, Tamarind and Gymkhana (Mayfair) which the new St. James Street location will surely capture.
But what of the Kings Road location that for 25 years satisfied the hunger in West London for high quality Indian cooking? Thankfully MW Eat, the family team behind Chutney Mary, have chosen this location to launch their newest venture: Masala Grill. Building on the reputation and success of the former venture, the identity of Masala Grill is formed by specialising in authentic family recipes that reflect the different regions of India, bringing together the expertise of sister establishments such as Amaya and Veeraswamy with the innovation and panache of something new.
The interior of the old restaurant has been revamped to give a less formal feel. Particularly impressive is the domed conservatory, housing a tree and strung with decorative streamers. A rich tapestry of colours – red and amber predominating and exotic objets d’art create an oasis of colour and vibrancy that is thoroughly atmospheric and conjures images of Rajasthan. The menu too offers fresh thinking and it is pleasing to note that innovation has been encouraged, through the creative input of co-owners (and sisters) Namita and Camellia Panjabi.
Inspiration is taken from traditional street food, particularly grilled meats and fish; however there is also a range of curries, biryanis and thalis on offer which showcase both traditional and contemporary Indian cooking.
Fine Dining Guide visited Masala Grill within a fortnight of its opening on a Thursday evening in May 2015.
We were pleased to find a deliberately simple menu, with all offerings except dessert featured on one double sided A3 card. The menu is divided into appetisers (to accompany drinks), starters and main course dishes such as grills and curries. Accompaniments such as vegetable dishes, rice and breads are all listed separately. Prices seem very reasonable with most starters under £10 and the majority of main courses in the £15-20 range.
The wine list is similarly focused on quality and value, comprising around 30 different whites and reds (priced from £23-£90) and a small selection of Champagnes, sparkling wine and Rose. A tempting range of cocktails is listed at £8 each.
We began our meal by sampling a couple of the cocktails. The Passion fruit and mango mojito is a long drink that is both crisp and refreshing, with the sharp and astringent passion fruit offsetting the sweet and fragrant mango. ‘Paradise on Ice’ lived up to its name; a tropical concoction of flavours comprising rum, grapefruit liqueur, guava juice and lime served in a martini glass. These were the perfect aperitifs to whet our appetite for the rich and spicy flavours to come.
We took the opportunity to sample the full range of appetisers from the menu with our drinks.
The crispy fried squid comes in a vibrant red batter, made with gram flour for extra crispiness. The squid meat was perfectly tender and mouthwatering, revealing the virtue of batter and a quick, hot frying.
The ‘Chicken Sixers’ gave us our fix of chilli and provide a hit of flavour with every bite.
Meanwhile the Pani puri were palate cleansing marvels! This dish, also known as Gol gappa, consists of small crisp shells of Pani (bread), filled with chopped onions, potato, chickpeas and tamarind. A conical of spiced liquid (Puri) is provided to fill the shells. Although this requires quick action to transfer the Pani Puri from plate to mouth without creating a mess, the challenge is half the fun and the taste is well worth the effort.
Not to overlook some of the classic street food dishes listed on the menu as ‘starters,’ the vegetable samosa chaat is one such delicacy. This comprises a traditional samosa topped with yogurt and chickpeas and a garnish of pomegranate seeds. The cool and creamy yoghurt is the perfect enhancement to the slightly dry samosa crust and adds richness to the simple vegetable filling.
Another was the ‘Mixed Vegetable Bhajia’, the vegetables had a wonderful lightness, which seemed more akin to a tempura batter than a traditional bhajia mix, avoiding any of the soft dough that can beset traditional bhajia.
Main courses were divided into Thalis (tasting dishes), biryanis, grills and curries. We sampled dishes both from the ‘Grill’ and ‘ Curry’ section. From the grill the salmon steak was a particular highlight. The succulent and translucent fillet was marinated in honey, dill, mustard and chilli. The technique of first cooking in a steam oven gave a wonderful moistness to the fillet, avoiding the uneven cooking that one might often associate with grilled fish.
The Raan Khyberi; a lamb dish cooked for 12hrs with a marinade of black cardamom and star anise. Although a grilled dish, this was served with light meat liquor. The meat itself was beautifully soft and gave way to the lightest of fork movements. The tastes were surprising subtle, but this had the advantage of allowing the full flavour of the meat to shine.
Prawn Malabari was predominantly flavoured with ginger and curry leaf while the base of the sauce was coconut. This was a rich and spicy dish, best paired with the simplicity of plain rice. The prawns were cooked to perfection having been added at the end of the cooking process to avoid over-cooking and the dreaded sensation of eating cotton wool.
To accompany the curry we sampled the Bhindi Dopiaza, or to translate okra-onions. This was a simple dish, but one full of flavour. The okra had crucial bite and the accompany sauce had good flavour but without over-powering the vegetables. For bread we tried Lacha Paratha. This has a rich, flaky consistency and is almost like pastry to eat. Although very moreish, this is probably better tried with simpler dishes such as the grills and was a little too rich to accompany a coconut based curry – a failure on our part when it came to ordering
Our main dishes were accompanied by a glass of the Aleegory Pinot Noir (Western Australia 2010). At £8.20 a glass, this is very drinkable and is well matched.
The dessert menu offers a number of Indian classics that it would be a pity to miss. One of these is Bebinca, a traditional Goan dessert made with layers of coconut pancakes. With an ingredient list that includes ghee, coconut milk and almonds, this is not for the faint hearted (or those with a cholesterol problem!), however this proved a wonderfully sweet and sticky sensation with a strong hit of nutmeg at the end. For those looking for a lighter option, there is a range of sorbets and ice creams. Both the lychee and orange sorbets may have been improved had the sharpness of the fruit been allowed to come through, but nevertheless made a pleasing end to the meal.
Masala Grill seems certain to successfully cater to displaced business from Chutney Mary. No doubt it will also attract an altogether new crowd, drawn by the informality, quality of cooking and exceptional value on offer. The service is knowledgeable, efficient and unobtrusive. Overseen on our visit by the welcoming and charming deputy manager Johnson Fernandez, it ran very smoothly indeed. Overall, Masala Grill is destined to be another success in the story of MW Eat and one that we shall watch with interest.