It's a Thursday evening and I am waiting outside Camden Town tube station for my little sister (C). We've decided to head to Masala Zone for dinner. As usual, C is late. She's somehow managed to miss the bus-stop and despite the fact that I left work long after she did, I'm the first to arrive. What is it with little sisters and timekeeping ?
I watch the punks and the office-workers, milling about. I notice some young men selling what appears to be cannabis to a suited-booted type. I watch people getting on with their lives, shopping, rushing to catch the bus or tube; a council-worker somehow manages to push his broom across the crowded pavement. It's a weekday evening and Camden Town seems to be buzzing; no one is standing still except for me. Suddenly I realise someone is waving their hand under my nose. It's C, i-pod earphone hanging out of one ear, blaring some music that I will never understand and trendy earrings hanging out of the other.
We trudge past the drug-pushers and the crowds at the bus stop and in a few minutes we are at Masala Zone. In a few minutes we are shown to a table for two that's squished quite close to the couples at the next tables.
I notice an entire row of 5-6 empty four-seaters by the window. Our waiter isn't too keen on seating us there despite a very muted request from me." We might be busy soon", he says with a charming smile. (When I left over two hours later, only two of those tables were occupied. The waiters had done a good job of cramming all the customers into the closely set central part of the restaurant).
The walls are plastered with cool, old Indian ads. The interiors of Masala Zone are a far-cry from those of a run-of-the-mill curry house. The decor is very earthy, ethnically Indian and somewhat rustic yet modern. We wait for about ten minutes before we find the waiter again and can order our drinks and our meal. The place isn't particularly crowded, so we are a bit surprised at how long it seems to be taking for those who are seated to get a waiter's attention. We order a grazing platter for starters and C orders a dal (lentils) with rice and I order a grand thali (a vegetarian mixed platter).
Our drinks arrive and a good twenty minutes later, so do the starters. We notice a child at an adjacent table, throwing a real tantrum because his meal hasn't arrived. When the waiter comes over, the mother asks "How come they (people at the next table) got served before us? The kids are hungry. Those people came such a long time after !" The waiter gently mutters in response, the mum doesn't look best pleased and soon busies herself serving the kids their meals. Their spats continue through the evening.
Our starters are really good. The bhel puri ( Bombay street food made with puffed rice and tamarind and coriander chutneys), is excellent. The sev puri (another street food ) is perfectly authentic and the flavours are brilliant; the sweet tanginess of the tamarind is a perfect foil to the spice of the coriander chutney and the crunch of the 'sev' and 'marmara'. Even C, who turns her nose up at most Indian food (nothing is ever as good as at her favourite restaurant in Bombay) , is pleased. We wipe our plates clean of every tiny morsel.
Another forty minutes later, our main course arrives. By this time, C is fuming. "For heaven's sake", she says, how long does it take to get something as basic as dal and rice. I sympathise a wee bit with the sentiment ! I'm hungry.
The kids at the next table are throwing a bigger tantrum now and I watch warily as the waitress resolutely forces two HUGGGGE men to sit down at the narrow two-seaters. They manage to squeeze themselves into the tiny space and I can see they are totally uncomfortable, but there is no chance that the waitress is going to allow them anywhere near the prized four-seaters, which are still only sparsely populated.
Finally our mains arrive and soon after, so does the manager. At the start of the meal, I had asked the waiter, how they cater to vegetarians in terms of dealing with cross-contamination, since this is an omnivorous restaurant. The manager earnestly tells me they have separate food preparation areas for vegetarian food. He says "In fact, we have one vegan main-course option too". I'm glad they take it seriously and I don't ask any more questions because I am distracted by the food now
My vegetarian grand platter consists of rice, a vegetable curry of choice (I chose the paneer makhanwala), a roti (Indian bread), a cauliflower and potato curry, a mixed vegetable curry, daal (tempered lentils), a carrot salad, a small vegetable patty and a half-poppadom.
The rice is well-cooked but lukewarm. The paneer's gravy is nicely flavoured and tomato-ey but cold; the paneer (Indian cottage cheese) itself is given in a meagre portion and tastes chemical-ish and is not particularly good quality. The vegetable patty is a bit too over-seasoned with cumin, but C enjoys it when she helps herself to some from my plate. The cauliflower and potato curry is hot (sharp) and spicy. The daal is perfect but again lukewarm. The mixed vegetable curry is a bit too dry and over-spiced for my liking. The roti bread is fresh enough but surprisingly not warm. Yes, you get the theme; my main course was served tepid and there wasn't a waiter in sight to ask if everything was ok. C enjoyed her rice and daal. Despite their tepidness and the fact that not everything was entirely to my taste, I enjoyed my mains too.
As we ate, we attempted to flag the waiter down at least 3 times to ask for water. The waiters got our order but all 3 glasses of arrived only a few minutes before we finished our meal rather than at any point during the meal, as we would have hoped. It took us a further 15 minutes after our mains were cleared to receive the bill and they even forgot to ask us if we would like puddings. That said, I must admit, I had no room in my tummy for any more.
When the manager asked us if we'd had a good time, I pointed out that while the service was very friendly, it was taking a very long time to get anyone's attention. He gave me some tired excuse as to how busy they were. Very strange, considering the restaurant, even at the peak of the evening service, was only about 60% full.
Our waiter, kindly arranged a doggy bag for our leftovers and we finally paid (after much waiting for the waiter to show up)
Our meal for two with two non-alcoholic drinks adds up to about £26 with service of 10% pre-included. Finally, after much waving across the room, the manager with his portable card reader walks over. He asks again if we enjoyed our meal. I gently mention that the food wasn't particularly hot temperature-wise. "That's not right", he says. " Your food should be hot, but we're busy today". I'm not too impressed by that answer, so we chat briefly about life, the universe and everything when I point out that we arrived at a time when the restaurant was hardly even a third-full. Finally I give up; there's no point prolonging the discussion. The manager is pleasant enough, but I should have realised that the "Did you enjoy your meal?" was just a pleasantry and I should have just said yes and ended the conversation.
We walk out into the warm summer's night. Camden is still buzzing with excitement. I'll probably visit Masala Zone again, if only for the decent quality of some of the food. It would be better (and the food would be warmer) if I popped over to their branch near Carnaby St instead. So that's probably where I'll go next time.