Restaurant review: Masala Hut in Moira
36 Main Street. Moira. Tel: 028 9261 1711. This award-winning Co Down eaterie serves up some surprising dishes among the traditional grub, but unfortunately, not all work as hoped
The rise in the quality of Northern Ireland's curry houses has been noticeable in recent months. Is this the result of newly-found competitiveness engendered by the very successful Cobra Irish Curry Awards now entering their fourth year?
According to the awards scheme founder Ali Askir, the pursuit of excellence and diversity among what we loosely call Indian restaurants (which are far more likely to be owned and operated by Bengali, Pakistani, Nepalese and Sri Lankan people rather than Indian families) has replaced the conventional approach of flock wall paper, burgundy coloured paper napkins, a single Heineken tap and a list of tandooris, biryanis and masalas you've seen a million times before.
Winners and runners up in the Cobra Irish Curry Awards up north (it is an all-Ireland scheme) include Nu Delhi, Indian Ocean, Asha and Bangla, both in Bangor, Tulsi in Holywood, Mama Masala in Derry, and a good few more.
A recent addition to the hall of fame is Masala Hut in Moira, the brainchild of east Londoner Rashal Khan and the restaurant which clinched Best Neighbourhood Restaurant in 2018.
An early evening visit this week to the super-busy Masala Hut (Tuesday night and the place was rammed) allowed me to press Rashal on his choice of location.
Just as his neighbour down the street Chris McGowan of Wine & Brine had eschewed the bright lights of Belfast when he came back from a long spell in London as Richard Corrigan's number one chef and had chosen instead to set up in Moira, so had Rashal.
"I love it here. Peter Hannan is around the corner so we get great meat, and the Moira people are supportive and friendly," he says.
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I brought an expert adviser with me, the man who has done more for the curry sector and Ireland's South Asian community than anyone, Ali Askir himself.
We embark on a series of dishes (there were a dozen in the end) which allow Rashal and his chef brother to showcase some of the best he's got.
The experimentation and ambition don't always marry successfully but by and large, the impression is one of an Indian restaurant which is pushing the limits.
Cinnamon and chilli sea bass which sounds profoundly weird, rabbit spring rolls unexpected and clever seeing as we are in the country and all, and tandoori pigeon with game meatballs are all ordered principally because, well, where else will you see them?
The seabass has neither cinnamon or chilli. It's a very nice, lightly battered piece of fish (two generous little fillets) but no sign of the spices. This may be a blessing although Ali suggests that the cinnamon reference may be more a nod to the famous other restaurant, Cinnamon Club in London.
Rabbit rolls are very gamey and pleasantly rich and the pigeon which is offered rare or medium is beautifully balanced. The gaminess of the pigeon lends itself well to the marinade and tandoori treatment.
But those game meatballs need to go back to the laboratory. I couldn't eat them. And then the world of wonder opens up with an extraordinary lamb moyna, a deep, rich and resonating dish of tender lamb with big tamarind flavours.
It is memorable for its balance with plenty of spice and sourness and just the right level of sweetness to smooth things out.
Ali grabs a piece of pistachio naan and spoons the lamb on to make what he calls a "naan rollie".
I copy this and manage to lose half the innards to the front of my shirt. It is very good, nonetheless.
A vegetable jahir curry is equally rich and deep in flavour and more like a patia. There are aubergines and peppers in there to make it a substantial dish. Lamb chops have been marinated all day and taste more north African, grilled and charred, beautifully spiced.
The shatkora lamb dish made with a Bengali citrus fruit could do with more chunks of the shatkora for extra bite and acidity but it is a very good, if safer, dish for the cautious adventurer.
Masala Hut is a buzzing, bright and well serviced restaurant. Staff are on the ball and if the food is a bit slower coming out than most other Indians, this is probably more to do with attention to detail in the kitchen where the magic is happening.
By the way, all your biryanis, tandooris and masalas are also here.
Rabbit rolls £5.95
Cinnamon chilli fish £5.95
Vegetable jahir £5.95
Lamb moyna £15.95
Shatkora lamb £12.95
Chicken biryani £12.95
Bottle Chablis £19.00