Starters at £3.65-11.25; Mains at £7.35-13.60, Sides at £4.50, Desserts at £3.50, Sunday Lunch Buffet at £10.50
We needed a curry in a hurry
It was January, we were back from France. There we were, for some unbeknownst and unforgivable reason, watching the worst series so far of Gordon Ramsay’s F Word. The only good thing about the particular episode was the food emanating from the mind and hands of Aktar Islam, the Head Chef of Lasan, one of the ‘local’ Indian restaurants that had been nominated by viewers as ‘the best local Indian restaurant’ in the country. I had to admit, the guy’s food had some flare and, if it tasted even close to as good as it looked, it must have been pretty amazing. He certainly seemed intent on pushing Indian cuisine beyond the normal confines of the UK restaurant scene. To make a long story short, this guy was getting us in the mood for a good curry, so we decided we would have an Indian meal the next night, which happened to be a Friday.
So we went through the list of good Indian places that we could go. But we didn’t want anything fancy (so places like Zaika, Tamarind, Benares, etc. were out), and we didn’t want to go too far from home. After quite an in-depth Google rampage, I thought I had done the unthinkable and uncovered one of London’s hidden gems. It had no blogger reviews on Urbanspoon, but lots of great comments in an array of less noted diner forums alluding to the fact that this was a ‘hidden neighborhood jewel’ of a restaurant in Notting Hill which mostly only locals frequented and that they had some rather unusual dishes when compared to traditional curry houses. After perusing their menu online through their rather annoying site (why have two sites instead of one?), I felt quite confident when making our reservation that we just may be onto a winner. If only life could be so simple…
How to make food that tastes of nothing
We had actually walked by this restaurant a few times on strolls through Notting Hill over the past few years, so knew where it was and that it looked the part looking from the outside in. It certainly continued to look the part as we entered that Friday night and were led from the ground floor dining room to the downstairs one, where we were given a table along the back wall, which had bench seating on the wall side of the table and chairs on the other. The place was decorated simply but tastefully in a modern slightly-nicer-than-IKEA way. It also had a good buzz, with large tables of friends downing Cobras (okay, so maybe this wasn’t going to be as refined as I thought it might be, but it could still be good), and generally appearing to have a good time.
We had a look through the menu, and it read very well. There were lots of dishes that sounded appetizing and tempting, and a number of dishes I had not seen on other Indian menus elsewhere in London. Despite Mrs. LF’s dietary situation (as you will know from recent posts, she didn’t have appetite for anything very ambitious given her stage of pregnancy), I insisted that I would order at least one of the more interesting dishes which I had read were good from other diner reviews.
The waiter brought us a carafe of water, which was presented in a nice aqua colored glass vessel and I perused the small but adequately thought-out wine list and chose a glass of the house wine (Hazy View, Chenin Blanc, Western Cape, South Africa at £4 per 125ml glass), which I figured would mesh well with the flavors of the Indian food. Decorative silver plates were laid down on the table and the waiters seemed to be kind, efficient and professional.
Our first starter sounded like it might be a bit different as I had never personally had corn with chillies. Unfortunately, it didn’t excite our palates at all. In a nutshell, this dish could be described as someone taking a tin of sweet corn, emptying it onto a little silver platter, chopping up a few slices of green peppers, and throwing in a few green chillies. Yeah, it tasted like plain old sweet corn that a college student had tried to dress up by chucking some green stuff in. Nothing totally clashed, but nothing was working together either, and it just tasted boring if slightly weird. Strike one. 3/10.
As John Torode or Gregg Wallace might say, “So, from sweet corn to devilled liver.” Yeah, I had gone with something a bit more ambitious. My starter of devilled chicken liver arrived on a huge black hot plate, lying on a bed of onions. The portion size was ginormous…I mean this literally could have been a main course. Possibly this is because the starters were meant to be shared family-style, but the waiters never warned us of this.
In any case, I was eager to try what was meant to be one of the kitchen’s specialties, but my excitement was sorely misplaced. As I bit into the relatively soft meat, I searched for the words to describe the taste. It did taste faintly of chicken liver, just. I could tell there were some spices thrown in, but none of them came through clearly. Basically, it was a lot of a something that had the tender texture of liver, the faint taste of liver and not much else, stuck on top of some not very flavorful or well-cooked onions. In a word: muted. I don’t know why, but I have this horrible habit of trying to finish everything on my plate (even when it tastes as boring and bland as this did), and Mrs. LF eventually succeeded in getting me to stop about two-thirds of the way through. What a waste of a dish. Again it didn’t taste ‘bad’, per se, but tasted of very little. 3/10.
Surely we would do better with the main courses. I had ordered the Murg Makhni, which sounded like it would be a succulently barbecued chicken soaking in a rich butter sauce. What emerged was chicken that had no hint of being barbecued, but was rather dry and severely lacking in flavor, a sauce that was more tasteless than any I’ve had from the many local curry houses I’ve lived near throughout my nearly ten years in London. Yes, I was getting the distinct feeling that everything we were going to be served at this meal was going to taste of nothing. 2/10.
I was certain that Mrs. LF’s chicken main, which was meant to have ‘fresh lime, green chillies, coriander and green tomatoes’, would have to have at least some kick of flavor. No. Once again, it was dressed nicely but was completely devoid of character and flavor. It didn’t taste ‘bad’, but it also didn’t taste ‘good’. It just tasted of an Indian dish whose soul had been sucked out by the flavor devil and banished to hell where it would never be tasted again by a living soul (perhaps this was why my liver dish’s moniker included ‘devilled’? It certainly wasn’t spicy or hot). 2/10.
The Kaddu, or pumpkin, side dish deserves special mention. It hadn’t been skinned competently and was taken from the hard part of the pumpkin near the edges, not the nice soft center bit. So it was rock hard and followed the pattern of the meal by having no seasoning whatsoever and tasting of bland, watered down pumpkin at best, and nothing at worst. Where were the ‘spice’ and ‘fresh herbs’ that the menu description had promised? 1/10.
At a lot of Indian restaurants that suck, you can often say, “Well, at least the rice was good.” Uh-uh, not at Malabar. It was completely normal at best and lacking of any aroma or taste. 3/10. The Peshwari Naan, which I usually really enjoy (due to my rather sweet tooth), seemed to us to be like one of the naan breads you buy from the supermarket and warm up yourself. It was the worst I’ve ever had in a restaurant, with the bread being totally undercooked and the filling inside being way too pasty and thoroughly uninspiring. We tried to eat about half of it, but left most of the bread. 2/10.
Mrs. LF was quite anxious to leave at this point, and I really didn’t fancy tasting a dessert that looked like it would taste sweet, but in fact was just a mirage of a pudding, so we opted to get the hell out of there. Some bright little mints were brought to the table with our bill. They were the sugar-coated dry seeded spices that you often get at the end of an Indian meal. I shoved a handful in my mouth and smiled. By God, these actually tasted of something. Praise the Lord. I think I polished off the entire bowl in 30-seconds flat, I was so glad to have some serious flavor alive and kicking around in my mouth.
Paying something for nothing
Unfortunately, reality set in and I realized I was going to have to fork out £40+ for something that had seriously depressed us. We chalked it up to experience, thanked the waiters for looking after us (they had done a decent job, to be fair, it was the kitchen that had sorely let us down), and headed back to our car thoroughly unsatisfied and with an empty feeling in our stomachs.
I couldn’t help but think of the monster in one of my favorite childhood films, The Neverending Story. It is called ‘The Nothing’ and it is devours everything in its path, eradicating any shred of creativity, joy or life. This force seems to have swept through the kitchen of Malabar. Maybe our meal that night had been the shell of the former restaurant, which has been in the same location since 1983, and may once have been somewhere good to eat. I mean, if it’s been around that long, it must have been good at some point(s), right?
We did have to cover our faces in our hands when we heard the posh English lady sitting next to us exclaiming loudly how ‘wonderful’ and ‘amazing’ her food tasted, so that she wouldn’t see our shock and awe. I simply can’t believe that her dishes, which looked very similar to ours (in fact, a few were the same), could have been much better. But the place did seem to be inexplicably packed with people who were definitely enjoying themselves.
I was more than appalled to learn a few weeks after our meal that Malabar holds a Bib Gourmand in the UK Michelin Guide. This does make me seriously question the judgement of Michelin as I can’t believe that even on its best night this kitchen could turn out anything that warrants that kind of accolade. At its height, I can only envisage Malabar’s food as bland and inoffensive, but certainly not something that stands out as the best food of its type to be had at a good price.
So, even if for some perverse reason, you fancy an Indian meal that is style over substance, still don’t go to Malabar, as there are many other pretenders to the throne that at least will give you some flavor. I mean, even places like Imli have some dishes that taste good and are vaguely satisfying. Malabar definitely needs a kick up its backside, and I hope its seemingly large client base can at least give it some constructive criticism, though I doubt this may happen as most of the people who we observed on this night seemed to be having a pretty good time.
Wine: very short, but a decent wine list for a neighborhood Indian restaurant
For more about my rating scale, click here.
*Note: I have dined at Malabar once (thank goodness), and it was for dinner.*