One of the odd upsides of the Covid pandemic and London’s interminable lockdowns is that it has now been so long since I visited some parts of London that arriving there (now that things are opening up again) is almost as novel and exciting as visiting a new city. On a recent visit to Soho to see a show, emerging from the theatre into crowded streets made me feel quite disoriented, as if I needed to check from which direction the cars were coming before I stepped off the pavement, as I need to in Paris! As my Jubilee Line train pulled into Wembley Park station on a recent Saturday, I tried to remember when I had last set foot in the area – probably in summer 2017 for an ELO gig. So I was unprepared for just how bustling the area is and how much there is to do there, even on days with no football and no concerts (hello Boxpark, hello London Designer Outlet Mall!). And nestled literally shadow of the famous Wembley arch, perfectly positioned to take advantage of all this foot traffic, is Masalchi, a new pan-Indian street food restaurant by Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar – his first foray into casual dining.
Atul Kochhar was born in Jamshedpur in eastern India, near Kolkata, and obtained a diploma in hotel management from The Institute of Hotel Management in Chennai before starting a career as a chef at the renowned Oberoi Hotel in New Delhi. He came to London in 1994 and if his name sounds familiar, it is probably because in 2001 he became the first Indian chef to be awarded a Michelin star for his London restaurant, Tamarind (another followed for his second restaurant, Benares). He has also appeared on numerous TV programmes (Saturday Kitchen and The Great British Menu amongst others) and written several cookbooks. But despite his fine dining culinary background and the fact that all his restaurant openings to date have focused on high end dining, Kochhar has a deep love for the vibrant flavours and rustic foods discovered at provincial street markets and hole-in-the-wall restaurants on his extensive travels throughout the subcontinent. And it is this hearty, rustic cuisine, showcasing the breadth of India’s spice culture and street food cuisine that Kochhar wants to introduce Londoners to with Masalchi (roughly translated as “spice master”).
The restaurant occupies a large ground floor space with floor to ceiling glass walls on three sides and I immediately liked the bright, airy feel. Unadorned wooden tables and chairs with a pop of colour to their frames are spaced well apart (great for social distancing but perhaps not great for ambience) and the structural pillars are clad in shimmering blue and antique gold ceramic tiles that I fell instantly in love with. Our window table not only gave me a great view of the passing parade but also made the most of the wintry sun’s warmth while we considered the menu. Masalchi’s menu is divided into half plates; curries (handi, masala & kalia, depending from where on the subcontinent they originate); grills; and biryanis. It’s good to see that a third of the menu is vegetarian (9 of the half plates and 6 of the mains) – and that is before you add the 9 vegetable side dishes, so there is plenty of choice for those eating a plant-based diet. There is also a democratically priced wine list (nothing except fizz is over £40 per bottle, although oddly there were no “by the glass” prices listed) featuring, amongst others, Kochhar’s own signature reserve white (a Hungarian Sauvignon Blanc by winemaker Nyakas), Prosecco and Champagne. There is a compact but interesting cocktail list, balancing the classics with some twists (Atul’s Favourite Martini featuring vodka, passion fruit juice and passion fruit chutney springs to mind), and all are priced at £9.50.
We started with a mango chilli mojito mocktail (£5.50) for my companion May and my outstanding kiwifruit mojito (£9.50) – bright green, fresh, zingy and not too sweet – plus I loved and devoured the dehydrated kiwi garnish. Kiwi mojitos should definitely be a thing! Later in the meal we also followed these up with delicious cooling mango lassi (£5.50). We also snacked on excellent light, crispy and non-greasy papad and chutney (£2.50) while we considered the menu – both the not-overly-sweet mango chutney and the surprisingly boldly flavoured tomato chutney that accompanied these deserve a mention of their own as being delicious and well above the standard of what is served in many other London restaurants. Our waiter was excellent and explained to us not only the structure of the menu, but how the dishes listed covered the length and breadth of the subcontinent, and each dish’s provenance and history. As he knew that we wanted to try a variety of things, he also made very helpful suggestions to ensure that the dishes we ordered covered many different regions, rather than inadvertently confining ourselves to too many dishes from a single area.
We started (at our waiter’s suggestion) with aloo papdi chaat (£4.50). This dish is classic north Indian street food and consists of fried potato cubes and chickpeas spiced with chaat masala; papri (fried wheat flour crisps); sweet yoghurt; and fresh mint and tamarind chutneys. The resulting combination is an extraordinary carnival of flavours and textures in your mouth: crispy, soft, spicy, sweet, sour and salty all at once. This was one of my favourite dishes of the day and one of the best examples I have had. Also from the half plates section we had keerai vadai (£4.50) lentil and spinach fritters with spicy tomato chutney from south India. This dish did not work for me – the fritters were too hard and dry and left a chalky sensation in the mouth, and there wasn’t enough tomato chutney to remedy this. Far better was the jhal muri (£4.50) – a generous bowl of crispy puffed rice seasoned with mustard oil, lemon and chilli. This snack from Kolkata packs a serious flavour punch: the mustard oil is very much in evidence and provides the same sort or sinus-clearing zing as wasbi does on a sushi platter, and the lemon and chilli provide depth of flavour. It’s like an addictively spicy bowl of Rice Krispies and the perfect bar snack. Another standout from the half plates (with a portion generous enough for a full meal, in my opinion) is the iconic south Indian dish Chicken 65 (£6.50). This dish was created and made famous by the Hotel Buhari Restaurant in Chennai and there are many stories as to how it got its name – some say because the chicken had to be cut up into 65 pieces while others say it is because 65 spices are used in the marinade. The far more likely reason is that the dish first appeared on the restaurant’s menu back in 1965 (a theory borne out by the fact that today, the menu also features dishes called Chicken 82, Chicken 90 and Chicken 2010; alongside prawn, fish, paneer and gobi 65s). Whatever the provenance of the name, this deceptively simple dish of well-marinated chicken pieces fried until crispy and then tossed with chilli and crisp curry leaves is an absolute show stopper and my favourite dish of the meal.
From the grills section of the menu we tried Lahori chaapein (£13.00) – spicy grilled lamb chops inspired by the street markets of Lahore, Pakistan. These three lamb chops were thick, juicy and perfectly pink inside, although sadly trimmed of most of their fat and far too politely spiced nd served to compete with the down ‘n dirty platters of spicy charred Lahore-style lamb chops you might find elsewhere in London. But as a dish, they were perfectly tasty and well-executed. The tandoori hara gobhi (£5.50) – chargrilled florets of broccoli with lime and Bengali kasundi mustard – on the other hand was a delicious revelation, with the smokiness of the chargrill and the zingy dressing adding oomph to the broccoli. An outstanding vegetable side dish!
For our larger plates we tried machhi masala (£10.00), a saucy south Indian-style fish curry in a gently spiced creamy sauce with tamarind and coconut, with excellent fresh garlic naan (£3.00) to mop up the rich sauce. The generous pieces of white fish were perfectly cooked to be flaky yet still holding their shape and the sauce was decadent and delicate – perfect for somebody who prefers their curry less spicy. We also had the Hyderabadi chicken biryani (£13.50), the quintessential chicken and rice dish of the Indian subcontinent, thought to have developed from Persian dishes brought by the Mughals in the 16th-18th centuries. I had mixed feelings about this dish – the chicken pieces were beautifully spiced and ever so tender but the rice was texturally wrong – too soft and mushy rather than the firm, separate grains that a good biryani requires.
From the side dishes, we had the smoked aubergine chokha (£4.95)and the peeli dal (£4.95) made from yellow split moong beans. Both these dishes were terrific and excellent value given the generous portion size. The northern Indian dal was comfort food of the highest order – a steaming bowl of gently spiced yellow pulses, perfect for scooping up in chunks of warm naan bread, and the closest thing to a hug in a bowl that I can imagine. The aubergine dish originates in Bihar, a province in the far north of India on the border with Nepal and was one of the standout dishes of the meal. The easiest way to describe it is to liken it to an Indian baba ganoush – but the flavours were more complex as ginger and mustard oil add a sharpness that beautifully balances the sweetness of the soft, smoky aubergine. It would also make a good vegetarian main, paired with some basmati rice.
The dessert menu is short and sweet with seven items to choose from, including Indian classics like gulab jamun and kulfi as well as international standards like chocolate mousse and ice-creams. We chose the tandoori pineapple with vegan coconut sorbet (£4.00) and the gajar ka halwa (£4.00), both of which came beautifully plated – presumably a reminder that this is after all the restaurant of a chef well schooled in fine dining! The smoky char on the chunks of fresh pineapple balanced their sweetness and the coconut sorbet was as light and refreshing as a dip in the ocean on a sunny day. The halwa (grated carrot simmered in milk, sugar and ghee) was rich but not too sweet and heavily scented with cardamom. I loved the crunch provided by the toasted almond slivers and the lemony tang of the red sorrel garnish – plus it was the prettiest halwa I have ever seen! To accompany my dessert I had some fresh mint tea while May had chai, poured at the table from a charming painted tea kettle. (And as an aside, I was mildly obsessed with the beautiful blue Genware crockery…)
All in all I was most impressed with the quality of the food we had, and really loved some of the standout dishes. The brevity of the menu (compared with so many Indian/Bangladeshi restaurants in the UK) was also refreshing and encouraging – far better to do 30 dishes well than 130 in a mediocre way. When we arrived at about 13h00, we were one of only a handful of occupied tables, but as the afternoon wore on, I was pleased to see a constant stream of customers arriving and almost all the tables filling up. It certainly does seem to function as an all-day dining destination as it was considerably fuller at 16h00 than it had been at lunchtime. I was also pleased to spot Atul Kochhar himself sitting working at the bar later in the afternoon: “He pops in unannounced quite often”, the waiter told me. The danger with chefs opening a number of restaurants as Kochhar has, is that they seldom if ever visit the outposts that bear their name and eventually the quality suffers. It is very encouraging to see that this does not seem to be the case here. Service was also excellent – attentive and knowledgeable – and even diners familiar with the dishes themselves might learn a thing or two about their provenance. The generous portions and modest pricing combined with the quality of the food and service make Masalchi the perfect place do drop into for a casual meal with friends after shopping or a gig, should you find yourself in the Wembley area.
Cost per head: approx. £40 for three courses and a cocktail
Nearest Tube/Train station: Wembley Park / Webley Central
Masalchi by Atul Kochhar
2 Wembley Park Boulevard
Tel: +44 (0) 1494 728 126
E-mail: [email protected]
Opening hours: Monday to Thursday 11am – 10pm; Friday to Saturday 11am – 10:30pm; Sunday 11:30am – 9:30pm
If you enjoyed this post, why not have a look at my other London restaurant reviews.
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of Masalchi but received no further remuneration to write this post. I was not expected to write a positive review – all views are my own and I retain full editorial control.
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