There is an area in South East England that seems to have remained perennially in the Dark Ages. With poor transport links – unless you count the A245 and a distant train station shared with the heaving metropolis of Stoke D’Abernon – Cobham has for centuries been bereft of horse-drawn carriages, town criers and the telegraph. Skirting London’s fringes and yet trapped within the M25, it is denied the breathing space that would provide a definitive rural existence; passing through Cobham, one can feel that its struggle for identity seems almost at an end, its sails withering even when the wind blows.
But recently Cobham has leapt into the 21st century, clutching progress with both hands and announcing to the nation that it is joining the ranks of industry, grasping high culture and oozing zeitgeist from its very brickwork to become a destination hotspot for the Friday nights of the new millennium. For Cobham is now one of the best places on the planet to get a curry.
Well, in Surrey, certainly, if not the planet. But the reason for this overwrought hyperbole is simple: Massala is not your common-or-garden curry house; it’s an Indian restaurant. And there is a distinction. Allow me to explain.
Curry houses cater for Friday night revellers, stag parties and television take-aways. They are the backbone of the weekend piss-up, the reliable meal, the definitive comfort food; perfect for us, in fact, a nation of creatures of habit. So much so that migrating Indians even created dishes specifically to cater for our unwavering and unadventurous palates. It’s no secret that chicken tikka masala was invented in England. (Funnily enough, it’s since been taken back to India, I’m told; although, as you might expect, it has been spiced up.)
At the other end of the spectrum, however, unbeknownst to Friday night Philistines is a range of Indian cuisine that chefs have been conjuring up for centuries: Indian food. They’ve been here in Britain for years; we’ve just never really indulged, opting instead, when a hankering for a curry takes us, for the old reliable, the local curry house. If the point of curry houses is familiarity, I can see why one wouldn’t want to deviate. I’ve been into aspiring Indian restaurants and been utterly baffled by the menu, there often being a risk of ordering something one didn’t want or expect. It might not be bad in its own right; it’s just disappointing not to have that initial desire sated.
An ‘Indian restaurant’ it may be, but Massala doesn’t purport to be experimental. From the dishes I sampled there with Lady Larry one recent evening, I got the sense not that the chef was trying out new things, but rather that there was more of an authenticity to Indian food than I’ve had previously. Massala has brought Indian dishes to England. You’ll find many a staple on the menu – shashlik, tikka, biryani, korma – but it’s how these are done that counts. You can tell there’s a learned skill to marinating the chicken shashlik starter to get it that tender; the lamb maans is a recipe replicated directly from its source in Rajasthan; and the monk fish malabar from Southern India outclasses any fish curry I’ve had.
All of these dishes, far from making us think we were tasting something never tried before, filled us with a sense of familiarity – but they’re special. That’s the point. This is curry house going gold standard. And, as Lady Larry observed as we sat back in our seats at the end of our meal, replete and relaxed, there is much more besides the menu that makes one feel at home at this unpretentiously upmarket local eatery: the whitewashed brickwork, the view of parked cars through the window by our table, the token cultural decor. All of your local curry house staples. It’s not daunting eating here. What’s daunting is getting there.
Cobham in the evening feels slightly sterile. Our taxi driver didn’t know the restaurant, so as we entered the High Street we slowed to keep an eye out. All that was missing was the tumbleweed; it felt as though there was something going on elsewhere. I spotted a modicum of activity in what appeared to be the only pub in town, The Old Bear. There just didn’t seem to be anybody about and we needed someone to ask where to find the restaurant. In the end, I committed that cardinal sin: I asked in one restaurant where another was. The enthusiasm of the waitress in Brasserie Gérard on receiving a potential customer visibly deflated as I asked after Massala. She gave a resigned sigh and gestured further down the road.
I’m convinced I’ve found my favourite local Indian restaurant – but why does it have to be in Cobham? Surely a chef of such distinction could make a killing in the West End. I see this humble little Surrey eatery challenging the likes of the Bombay Brasserie and Cinnamon Kitchen. So, in spite of Lady Larry’s embarrassment and efforts to finish our meal politely and without fuss, I had to ask. I was told, quite rightly, that London is well served, that there’s a dearth of anything approaching upmarket Indian food in the Home Counties and that this modestly-sized town in suburban Surrey seemed an ideal staging post to satisfy a captive audience. He may have a point.
Cobham might just have the best local Indian restaurant in the land, but if they’re trying to keep Massala a secret, they’re doing a good job of it. And quite right, too; it’s between me and the residents of Cobham. And the readers of The Arbuturian.
Massala Indian Dining, 19 Anyards Rd, Cobham, Surrey KT11 2LW. Tel. 01932 865005. Website.