The Malabon in Petersfield apparently comes well recommended by the food critics of the local paper in Portsmouth. From the restaurant website:
Carol Godsmark Top Critic of “The News – Portsmouth” Award The Malabon Tandoori Restaurant on the food, service and atmosphere.
The article is framed and hung on the wall in a cherished spot. In fact, the senior waiter (of whom more anon) showed us with pride the review, marked 5 stars out of 5 in all categories. But what do they say of themselves?
Malabon Tandoori Restaurant, Hampshire offers the best quality Indian & Bangladeshi food using the freshest and finest ingredients. Our professional skills lie in the balancing and blending of spices and this is what we want to share with you. Malabon offer many vegetarian dishes and if there’s something that isn’t on the menu they will cook it as asked.
The sort of claims you would expect to hear, but can they walk the walk?
A wet Monday night in January seemed the right time to test out these claims first hand, so my companion and I ventured forth. Two things were readily apparent on looking at the restaurant, one being that it is relatively small and snug, the other than it provides a fascinating mix of old-school Indian (or Bangladeshi, to be strictly accurate) restaurant culture (including various pictures and artefacts, though the hookah is surely more reminiscent of Arabic history?) and relatively modern decor in the context of an old English beamed cottage. As the website puts it:
The restaurant is a listed building with nice warm red colours on the wall and the black and white combination and the original beam to give the place a homely and romantic feeling.
Not sure about romantic but I’d go with homely since it felt a relaxed and comfortable place to dine. The decor was however not the primary reason for the conducive ambience, nice though it was; food notwithstanding, I’d say the Malabon picks up the 2015 Andy Millward award for friendliest service by a long chalk, courtesy of a father and son team of waiters who were jovial, helpful and charming by turn – starting with the nice touch of shaking us by the hand as we entered, and proceeded to answer a range of bizarre questions posed by my companion in good humour throughout the evening (eg. about palm sugar, stringed Indian musical instruments and about mukhwas, the stuff offered to freshen your breath and aid digestion after the meal.)
Now I’d grant you this was not quite the professional French model of service, whereby the waiter is aloof and starchily formal, so maybe not a style that would appeal to all tastes (eg. if diners want to talk to one another and resent intrusion.) However, it was quite evident that the waiters knew all the regulars by name and greeted everyone, including us, like long-lost friends. Personally I wish far more restaurants went for this effusive and enthusiastic style of service, though I’d acknowledge that where you have 100 covers to manage spending time to converse with any table would be less easy. After all, good service gets tips, encourages repeat visits and can compensate where the dining experience is less than satisfactory, not that there was any such problem here.
The other welcoming factor at the Malabon is the Monday and Tuesday deal: any starter, any main, any side, rice or naan bread, ice cream or coffee, £11.95 all in. In fact you also get the traditional freebie drink offered at the end (we didn’t partake since I was driving) along with the After Eights and mukhwas, so value for money is undeniably excellent, perhaps a sign that the competition in Petersfield is hotting up as much as the curries (three curry houses, I’m told), all the more reason to use good service to win customer loyalty. Even without offers, the prices were by no means upmarket, and were the same restaurant to be transplanted into the London area you could easily have added £3-4 per main course.
Leaving marketing to one side, the food deserved a visit on its own merits, and it was good to see that the menu had also been designed to stand out from the crowd through the inclusion of several unusual dishes, many of which warranted further investigation and would certainly prompt a revisit when I am next in the area. For example: “Shatkora: cooked with special Bangladeshi citric called Shatkora (seven seeds) which only grows in the region of Syhlet.”
After three round of papadoms with interesting pickles and sauces (you don’t often see chilli pickle included, but it added a pleasant tingle to my tastebuds; worth also noting that the lime pickle was better than many too), my companion started with Hyderabadi Murgh Shoba, literally chicken soup from Hyderabad, which turned out to be thick, luscious and tasty; my Tandoori King Prawns (yes, you could get king prawns in the offer!) were dyed deep red and woven together and de-skwered to a plate for serving, with a side salad and yet more of the delicious yellow mint sauce we had consumed with our papadoms.
For mains I think she ate Gosht Lajawaab, though I could be mistaken – the menu description sounds about right (“tender juicy pieces of lamb, marinated in spices & yogurt, cooked to perfection flavoured with cinnamon & coriander.”) My Khassie Bhuna, being lamb chops with a dryish tomatoey bhuna sauce, worked well and survived the potential disaster of overcooking by virtue of being succulent and flavoursome. In hindsight I might have chosen something less dry, but we did at least have sides to add variety.
Strangely enough, the younger waiter and I were agreeing that Tarka Dall should be thicker than the lentil soup typically served, and on this occasion the balance was about right, though maybe the garlic flavour could have been a tad stronger.
Our other side dish, Methi Sag, was the least photogenic but did deliver a fine spinachy punch with layers of flavour bringing home the fenugreek spicing, supporting their claim to providing a good balance of spicing. Done well this is the art of a master chef, since the spices will hit different tastebuds at different times and can be experienced individually. When it is done well, this I take to be the mark of a chef and kitchen that understands the subtle art of spicing rather than lumping everything together in a brown sauce. The chef at Malabon, whom we briefly greeted) seems a talented chap who recognises the benefits of spicing with care, for which due credit is deserved.
All told, the Malabon may not have offered the best Indian subcontinent food I’ve ever eaten but it was certainly keen value and had enough to warrant becoming a regular, if I lived in the area. The welcome, flattering to the ego as it is, made the experience memorable, and if you don’t come out of a restaurant feeling better than when you entered then what was the point? Well done Malabon and thank you to your excellent staff!