Remember when Ventnor was a run-down, dejected town? No, really, it was. And not that long ago either. Just before you moved down, in fact. All of you, too trendy for Brighton and too jaded for London – you gently fell on this dying seaside town like a morning mist, a quiet colonisation that breathed an improbable new life into the place.
Remember that decommissioned International stores; a ruinous gateway to the town? Housing an optimistic yet chaotic book shop until falling so far into disrepair the kindest thing to do was to pull it down and replace it with a Tesco. Many, including Ventnor Arts Festival visiting act Hardeep Singh Kohli, were sceptical about the benefits this national chain would bring, but several years on, and the sky hasn’t fallen in. Indeed, the gentrification continues. We saw that another vast and ramshackle shop had been transformed, this time into a glossy Indian restaurant, complete with obligatory coloured LEDs, wood-bound menus and (at the end of your meal) branded mints – so we went to have a look at the new Masala Bay.
It’s a tried and tested formula and, seemingly converted in a few weeks from empty shop to shiny restaurant, Masala Bay has been packing them in. Certainly the first time we tried to get a seat on a busy Friday night at the beginning of the school holidays we were thwarted by people more organised than us who’d had the foresight to book a table.
Popadum x 2 £1.70
Chicken tikka masala £9.95
Lamb dansak £8.95
Pilau rice x 2 £6.50
Cauliflower bhagi £4.20
Bindi bhagi £4.20
We had more success the following Monday (plus the sense to make a reservation). Matt likes a good ‘Ruby’, as he’s never tired of telling folks in his best Dick Van Dyke Cockney. Cat on the other hand is generally indifferent to curry. She’s chilli-averse, not keen on lentils and has had too many suspiciously scarlet dishes to be interested in exploring menus further.
The team at Masala Bay were pretty helpful. We were welcomed in, settled at our spacious table, and given advice on which curry to try. Despite a tempting range from the Nepalese Collection, we both went for what were pleasingly described as ‘British Traditional Curry Dishes’. Cat, as ever, chose chicken tikka masala, supplemented with a cauliflower bhagi.
Surprisingly there was no flourished arrival of plate warmers nor that particular pantomime involving wiping hot plates with freshly-laundered linen. The trolley was all present and correct though and the team served each of the dishes to its rightful owner, including the various rices and sides, without any prompting from the party of five.
Lamb dansak was Matt’s traditional British main course. He was impressed by the fresh, tangy lentil dish, and particularly by the huge chunks of lamb inside – there was plenty of it, and it was good meat. A bindi bhagi is his favourite side dish, and the tasty okra was done perfectly – still with some crunch, the perfect complement to the soft dansak.
Cat’s tikka masala managed to be sweet without being cloying, with discernible coriander and plenty of chicken. Cat was pleased with her choice of cauliflower bhagi; firm, gently spiced and with softly-cooked onion for added interest, it was a pleasing accompaniment for the curry. There was enough chicken left to supplement the two hungry students we’d brought with us, who had themselves polished off a lamb bhuna and a lively custom-made naga lamb with extra spice for the birthday boy.
We were offered puddings, but we went to Crave of course. On our way up the hill we were able to appreciate what had been a very pleasant Indian meal – even curry-sceptic Cat confessed to enjoying the good service and quality food. As the rise of Ventnor continues, Masala Bay is another welcome addition to the southern dining scene.
This is the full-length version of the review that appeared in the Isle of Wight County Press.