Habitués of the Cowley Road with an interest in reasonably-priced exotic cuisine will have noticed the recent metamorphosis of the Mirch Masala at numbers 137-139. Closed for some time, the restaurant recently reopened with a distinct party-venue feel to it, and this is obviously having the desired effect. When my dining partner and I asked for a table, we were greeted with the incredulous response "Only two?!", and as we ate, two groups arrived to take up their pre-booked tables amongst the flowing pot-plants (one being a party of young Asian professionals celebrating a birthday). The background music kept the atmosphere lively, with everything from classical to indian pop, and this vivacity seemed reflected in other touches about the place (such as the small model people posing like the Blues Brothers on the roof of the ornate beach-style bar).
Service was prompt and extraordinarily amiable. We were informed immediately of the existence of the £7.95 all-you-can-eat buffet, which occurs 6 days a week (Mirch is closed Mondays) between 6.30 and 11pm. This was indeed the reason we were there. No sooner had our drinks orders been taken than they had appeared magically before us, and we were being urged to make a foray over toward the food counters.
A glorious array of stuff was on display, and if you are the sort of person who goes to indian restaurants with friends to share all the dishes, this will of course be your dream come true (as it was mine). In the separate compartments of the steel canteen-style main course trolley could be found vegetable korma, chicken korma, vegetable, lamb and chicken baltis, chicken madras, chana and tarka dhals (yellow split peas and lentils respectively), Bombay aloo (spicy dry potatoes), aubergine, okra, muttar paneer (peas and fried milk curd), sag aloo (spinach) and possibly more. On the end of the trolley were stacks of warm poppadums, piles of meat and vegetarian samosas, onion bhajis and an enormous plate of small round fluffy patty-type things and a huge container of sweet halva (worth saving for later - details to follow). In another vaguely refrigerated trolley could be found all the typical sundries, including an evil lime pickle (which my dining friend described as "quite limey" as I attempted to quench the fire in my mouth with beer), runny mango chutney, raita (cucumber, yoghurt and onion dip), traditional Indian restaurant salad (chopped up onion, cucumber, tomato), pickled vegetables (gherkins, carrots, beans) - and a couple of dessert fruits (lychees and guavas).
Rather overcome by this abundance of foodstuffs, I visited almost every container to collect a small portion and pile it greedily onto my plate. Chastised by the kindly manager for eating the wrong way round (I suppose I could have had starters followed by mains…!), I made my way slowly through the first plate, pacing myself. The chana dhal was a little salty according to my co-diner, but I like salty lentils; the spinach was deliciously sloppy, the muttar paneer splendidly chewy, the fluffy patties soft and tasty, the mango chutney sweet and mangoey, etc, etc. The peshwari naan deserves a special mention. Freshly cooked to order (as are all the naans), it was pink, light, crispy and delicious, a revelation compared to the featureless carbohydrate curry-mops one often receives in less salubrious establishments.
A rather tinny pint of Kingfisher later and I was back to the food counter, shovelling halva (not the Greek-style, super-sweet sesame-seed fibreglass, but the asian version: a deliciously squidgy cake of almond and sultanas) onto the edge of my plate (for which I was jovially chastised by the restaurant's proprietor - I could have had a pudding plate, you know). Feeling finally stuffed with savouries, we had a short digestive break before embarking upon the finale. Of course, no proper and fully investigative review is complete without experimenting with desserts (!), and so two ice creams were called for (extra to the buffet price, but worth it). I had pistachio and almond kulfi in a delightful little lidded cauldron; laden with condensed milk, it was the perfect end to a spicy meal. Sorbets and other kulfis are also available. Resisting coffee and finally calling for the bill, we were told that we could not possibly leave, as it was not 11 o'clock yet!
If only we'd had the time to stay.
Takeaway is starting soon, and I can't wait.