Masala: Homage to the English curry house

Swanage, a coastal town in east Dorset, was our destination for the weekend. It is a quintessentially English resort with beach, bucolic views, a quaint high street, cracking pubs and, of course, a couple of curry houses. Across the country, there are some 35,000 of this wonderful institution. While each has its own idiosyncrasies, there is something wonderfully reassuring about the familiarity which the curry house affords. Sure, there are a burgeoning number of Michelin-starred venues in London offering high-end Indian cuisine as well as some out-of-town upstarts offering ‘progressive’ alternatives to the much-loved tikka masala. Furthermore, many might make a claim to Birmingham, Bradford, Brick Lane or beyond offering the ‘best’ or ‘most authentic’ British Indian dining experience. Nonetheless, for someone who grew up in 1980s suburban London, Masala epitomises the classic old school Indian venue. You can probably picture the scene without needing a description. Nonetheless, here goes: carpet on the floor, minimal décor on the walls, laminated menus, the offer of poppadums and Cobra beer on arrival, hot towels and mints at the end. The menu provides everything from korma to phal with all variations in between as well as some house specials such as ‘chicken delight’ and an ‘English tariff’ with the likes of omelette. Our group of five visited on two consecutive weekend evenings and so sampled broadly across the menu. The general consensus: a resounding thumbs up. The jalfrezi was my highlight, with tender chicken pieces combined in a pungent sauce. Vegetable sides also delivered, particularly aubergine and spinach. Was Masala inherently better than The Golden Bengal (its Swanage rival, slightly further from the centre) or many of the country’s other comparable venues? No, but this is not the point. It’s the familiarity, the reassurance, the shared experience with a group of friends. For £25-30/head, you know exactly what you’re going to get, and it works