Masalchi by Atul Kochhar: ‘Come here for a bit of everything’ – restaurant review | Indian food and drink
Masalchi by Atul Kochhar, 2 Wembley Park Blvd, Wembley HA9 0HP (020 8634 8181). Half plates Â£ 4- Â£ 7.50; large plates Â£ 6- Â£ 14; desserts Â£ 4.50; wines from Â£ 24; Cobra beer Â£ 6.50 a pint
In mid-October, Indian chef Atul Kochhar opened a massively expensive and simply huge restaurant called Mathura, inside the former Westminster fire station. It offers a tasting menu for Â£ 110 or a la carte with starters around Â£ 20 each. Most main courses cost over Â£ 40 including a 24k gold leaf wagyu fillet at Â£ 85 because as we know sigh, eating gold leaf is one thing. The only fires this building has to deal with these days are credit cards that ignite spontaneously.
The launch could be seen as an act of great bravery. I am not so sure. There are a lot of restaurants in central London that are charging high prices right now and they all seem to be full; especially with the kind of people you never tire of pricking with the pointed end of an unsanitary stick. Prices have also increased recently, up to 20% from pre-pandemic levels in some places. And yet, what every chef and restaurateur I have spoken to tells me is that while there may be staff shortages, there is no shortage of customers. Kochhar will no doubt find plenty of takers for this Â£ 85 gold-speckled wagyu, although I’m not among them.
Just five days after opening Mathura, Kochhar opened a second restaurant, about 9 miles northwest, in Wembley. Masalchi, which roughly translates to ‘master of spices’, is so close to the stadium that on match days diners can hear the crowd sigh in disappointment when a goal is missed. This is, I think, the truly courageous enterprise. It’s partly the scale. It is a large ancient beast of a room with glass walls, which can accommodate 120 people. There are huge square pillars tiled in iridescent shades of blue and gold, and a ceiling covered in slats of blond wood. It has something to the canteen.
It is also very expensive. The menu begins with a long list of what they call half-plates, many of which cost less than five cents. Why can’t we call them “small” plates, I don’t know. Small is a word I understand. Half just makes me want to ask “what?” Next to these, there are bigger dishes between Â£ 6 and Â£ 12. He will therefore have to make his money on volume. This means it can’t just depend on the crowds looking for something to eat before they see their team lose in the stadium next door, or before being knocked unconscious by the bizarre cult of the personality in tuxedo and bow tie that is AndrÃ© Rieu and his Orchestra of the SSE Wembley Arena, which will perform on May 18, 2022. As you did not request.
The point is, he needs the locals to come and keep coming. This is where it gets interesting. Wembley is a home for the Indian community in the capital. Masalchi is surrounded by bright, inexpensive, and often long-established restaurants, representing various parts of the culinary traditions of the subcontinent: places like Sakonis, Goan Spice CafÃ© and Restaurant, and Pradip’s. If his cooking is wrong, the Indian community, which is here in force tonight, will let him know quickly. So it may be advantageous for Masalchi that instead of a restricted geographic setting, he draws inspiration from street food across the entire Indian subcontinent, with origins often explicitly described.
Come here for a bit of everything, because that’s what you get. Expect uncompromising fire and depth, and remembering what you ate for a few hours afterward. Consider wearing the mask after your meal as a cheerful way to extend the experience as you breathe in and inhale your dinner. Two-thirds of the half-plates are vegan; these dishes were always meat and dairy free. From Uttar Pradesh there is aloo kachori, the carb-on-carb feast of crispy bread pockets filled with potato curry, then gloriously inundated with the same, and there’s the textual joy of sundal, a hot South Indian salad made from coconut, peanuts and chickpeas. A disc-shaped pile of poori with a turnip-carrot pickle fails to catch our eye.
From Chennai comes a plate of 65 deep fried and deeply spiced chicken, with dry fried chili peppers. Depending on which source you use, it’s named because of its 1965 origins at the Buhari Hotel or, less convincingly, because of the 65 chillies involved, or the 65 pieces of chicken it requires. Origin stories like this are only really interesting if the dish is good and it is. It’s fried chicken in mighty steel-tipped boots.
The grill list includes Lahori lamb chops. If what you crave, if what you’re really hungry for, is the hand-on-the-bone action of dark, crusted lamb chops, this isn’t the place for you. Go to Gifto’s Lahore Karahi in Southall or one of the Mirch Masalas or of course the Tayyabs in Whitechapel. (Other Pakistani grills are always available.) But as part of a menu drawing on a whole bunch of different traditions that these fat cut lamb chops can be a part of, they are more than enjoyable. Here, for example, they can sit next to a light and mild South Indian fish curry and, Lucknow, a bowl of extremely attractive mutton (or chopped) keema with potatoes. Earth. It’s pure comfort food for adults.
We gave up on bread and rice, lest it hinder the space that could otherwise be used for more pressing dishes. With this bowl I miss a naan. Never mind. I’m just going to have to clean it with a spoon. I’m good at jobs like this. A smoky side of roasted and mashed eggplant, bold with acidity and chili, helps with this noble task.
The dessert menu includes gulab jamun, golden ravioli bursting with rose syrup, guaranteed to tone down the most intense flavors. I guess there is a manual somewhere that insists that they should be included in a menu like this. They are absolutely fine. More refreshingly, there are deeply charred sweet and juicy chunks of pineapple on a trip to the tandoor, through which the pristine white of a coconut sorbet gently melts. Cobra and Malabar are available by the pint and there is a fully serviceable wine and cocktail list. There is also a menu for those who, for dietary or cultural reasons, do not eat allium.
Until now, Atul Kochhar was a chef who had only swam in the deep waters of premium Indian cuisine. This is his first casual place. I suspect it won’t be his last.
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