During my September trip to London, I had the opportunity to experience two ends of the excellent Indian food spectrum available in the city. First, our whole team took a madcap trip through Covent Garden for a great group meal at casual chain Masala Zone. A couple nights later, my colleagues Ancia and Keith, and his wife, Melissa, luxuriated over a much higher end repast in Marble Arch at La Porte Des Indes. The juxtaposition of these two meals – both were delicious, but very different - showed me that maybe we’re doing ethnic food wrong in the U.S. How often do you find a really upscale Indian restaurant here? In fact, how often do we find upscale restaurants of any ethnicity save French, outside of major metropolitan areas? This goes back to my long-held belief that sometime around the 1950s, we all had the spice bred out of us, and began to think of bland, canned, processed food as just fine, thank you. And what do we have now? Terrible chain food, coast to coast, that we’re told is fantastic, and a misconception that “fine dining” is too expensive and not fun.
Ahem, let me take a graceful step down off my soap box, though, and get back to all the yummy curry in London. At Masala Zone, we started the meal with these awesome fried onions called pakora – they were battered like our onion rings, but the batter was just a little bit sweeter, almost malted. They could have been crispier, for my taste, but they still went down mighty easily next to some beer. We also had samosas, India’s answer to potstickers. These had a flaky, crunchy crust, and a very mild lamb filling.
We all chose Thalis for our meals here – for me, the lamb rogan josh. It was spicy, though not too hot, and the other dishes on the plate – a thali is a variety of vegetable, meat, and starch dishes, and represents Indian home cooking – were savory, distinct, and delicious. There was nothing shouting above the others, but the lamb was tender in a scrumptious, spiced sauce, and there was plenty of chapatti, or bread, to scoop up the saucy bits. The cauliflower dish included on this platter was one of my favorites – India has gone and made cauliflower a sexy vegetable – can you believe it? This was spicy, firm, with a near-smoky earthiness. Absolutely fabulous.
While Masala Zone was informal, comfortable, and casual, La Porte Des Indes is lavish, palatial, with an indoor 40-ft waterfall and a tiger-themed bar in the basement (no, I am not joking). The service sought to pamper, and the food was immaculate. I have never had Indian like this, and I want more. We began this meal with rasoul, or lamb curry puffs. The pastry enveloping the savory meat and pea filling was spectacular, shatteringly fragile and crisp. You can feel free to groan now.
Next up, tandoor-grilled massive prawns, spiced with garlic, star anise, and coriander. These were spicy in a mouth-tingling, pleasant sort of way, and very much lobster-like in texture due to the sheer size of the shrimp. A lot of people think spices like star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove are only for sweet baked goods, but their use in Indian and Mediterranean food lends a gorgeous, warming sensation to savory dishes. The red chile sauce served as a dipper was dynamite, and I mean that literally.
The naan, which we ordered in chile coriander (in this case, fresh cilantro) and plain varieties, was terrific. Slightly crunchy from the tandoor, with just a gentle pull when you bit into it, and a powerful slap of heat in the chile pieces; we ate it all. My love for naan just keeps growing – of course it’s the perfect conduit to shovel drippy vestiges of highly spiced sauces from your little Indian bowls of goodness, but I also love to construct makeshift pizzas on it, or simply dip it into raita, India’s answer to my beloved tzatziki. Out of all the breads of the world, it has really risen as one of my favorites. Risen, get it?
So, I know that in as fine a restautrant as this, it was kind of a cop-out to get chicken tikka masala and palak paneer. I know! But my thought was to compare the range of these dishes I’ve had countless times with a really fine rendition, and while the palak paneer (spinach and famers cheese) didn’t especially knock my socks off – this was a less saucey and less scented with flowery cardamom than others versions I’ve had – the tikka masala was aces. It was spicy, in fact, higher on the ole Scoville scale than the fish dish Melissa fretted over ordering, but then loved. The chicken, which Keith and I both chose, hit all the familiar notes of tomato, cream, cilantro and garlic, but in a heightened, refined way. Every flavor was in harmonious balance, and though the spice level was high, that sauce danced on the tongue like a waltz – or maybe a tango, tempered by an unusually creamy texture and the bright herbs.
I would give both these meals eights on the BHS scale, though for different reasons. Both meals were good, though I would give the culinary and décor edge to Indes, for sure. The charm of Masala Zone is its friendly service and accessibility, while the service at the fancier restaurant was formal and a bit distant. For instance, at Indes, I only had one cocktail – because no one ever offered me another, and our table was so involved in conversation, I never made a point to flag someone down in order to get one. But really, I was blissed out in both spots, high on the fragrant spices and pungent, savory flavors. Next time you’re in Londontown, don’t miss trying this cuisine at one of the city’s numerous choices, and let me know what you think!
Have you checked in with our Big Hungry Shelby Facebook group yet for sneak peeks of foodie photos and other gastronomic chatter? Are you following me @BigHungryShelby on Twitter and Instagram? Well, what are ya waiting for? It only gets more delicious from here. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!