Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Masala Wala – A Hint of Street, a Pinch of Sophistication

It was just a little over a week ago that I attended a wonderful press dinner at The Masala Wala, a fairly new Indian restaurant, specializing in authentic Indian street food with a sophisticated twist. I was excited about checking this place out, as it promised all the qualities in a restaurant I like – intimate, family owned and ethnic in nature. Joined by some new and old friends from the food blogging world, we weren't disappointed and in fact a follow-up visit has already been scheduled.

Located in a busy section of the Lower East Side on Essex Street near Houston, the Masala Wala is an intimate restaurant, seating 28 people inside and a few more outside. It was a lovely night out on the day I visited, and quite a few folks were enjoying their dinner and drinks in the open air. The atmosphere was cheery and casual, but I’d recommend dining inside if you want to experience it to the fullest.

Once I walked in, I immediately liked what I saw – a cozy yet modern vibe, with a dining room that was well lit and decked with a mix of contemporary and traditional embellishments. My favorite was the compartmentalized wall that serves as a barrier between the dining room and the kitchen, but is also a place where beautiful sculptures, candles and various Indian trinkets are displayed. It’s really a thing of beauty and something we all admired, while also acknowledging it as a smart use of space. To the left of the wall, you’ll find a decorative gold coin, which is also the work of art that showcases Masala's namesake.

What I love about Indian culture is the communal nature with which food is enjoyed, and that’s exactly what we did here. Masala Wala’s gracious staff brought out a generous assortment of their signature dishes for us to dig into, and comment on at the same time. Not only was it a lot of fun, it also allowed us to try almost everything on the menu. Although everything looked and tasted fantastic, I’m only going to comment on my most memorable bites, but you can also peruse my colleagues’ reviews for more insight.

Starters – When it came to the starters, the biggest show stoppers for me were the Dahi Puri, the Kolkata Gobi Manchurian and the Chicken Tikka. The first was a beautiful semolina puff, made of potatoes, chickpeas, tamarind, mint, topped with yogurt chutney. The best part was the way in which it was enjoyed—all in one big bite—which gave you a medley of flavors that were a little bit spicy, but also slightly sweet and refreshing. Overall, people were really impressed with this, as it’s something non-traditional that Americans may not think of when having Indian food.

The Kolkata Gobi Manchurian was also unique and totally conducive to a Western palate. Made up of cauliflower florets, enveloped in a deep, red Indo-Chinese sauce this dish resembled something you’d see in a Chinese restaurant. Its taste was garlicky and rich, and I loved the texture of the thick sauce and the slightly crunchy cauliflower florets that were remarkably meaty.

While simple, the Chicken Tikka was a beautiful rendition of a classic Indian dish with large pieces of juicy chicken that was deeply bathed in a tandoori marinade. I thought it was an excellent starter, and something that can easily be an entrée with a side of naan or some fragrant rice. My dining companions agreed, and the soon empty serving plate spoke for itself.

Entrees - The feasting really kicked up a notch with the entrees, and we got a total of ten different things to try, including both meat friendly and veggie plates.  Again, three things stood out to me most, including the Chicken Saagwala, the Kerala Fish Curry and the Shrimp Konkani Curry.  I wasn't expecting to like the seafood entrees most, but the shrimp especially impressed me.  Consisting of large pieces of shrimp, which were dressed in a South Indian curry with red cayenne pepper, coconut milk and coriander, the dish incorporated a nice mix of sweet and spicy flavors.  The actual shrimp was the main show stopper as it was super fresh and cooked perfectly.  

I enjoyed the chicken dish a lot too, mostly because of the creamy spinach sauce in which it was cooked.  Just like the Chicken Tikka, which I mentioned above, the chicken in this dish was also moist and flavorful. Once the meat was gone, we still loved dipping into the spinach sauce with our leftover garlic naan.  What a perfect vehicle for this velvety sauce!

Sides - Two types of naan, including garlic and butter, as well as traditional basmati rice served as our side dishes.  All three were delicious, and were perfect for soaking up all the rich sauces in our entrees.  We enjoyed the naan so much that we asked for seconds of the garlic.  It had beautiful blister marks on the outside and a soft airy inside that made it easy to devour.  To say that we were happy to receive some extra to take home was an understatement. 

Dessert - Capping off the night with a little sweet flavor, we tried two types of homemade ice cream as well as the traditional Gulab Jamun dumplings.  While the latter was tasty, it didn't wow me as much as the ice cream.  Creamy and refreshing, I was happy that the ice cream wasn't overly sweet and did a great job of cooling our palates, which experienced a lot of strong flavors from our dinner entrees.  Out of the two "kulfi" (ice cream), I preferred the pistachio, which was beautifully rich in color and earthy in flavor.

Drinks - While there was an offering of wines, I chose to indulge in Masala's lassis instead, including the mango and rosewater.  The latter was especially interesting, boasting a beautiful light pink color.  It did a great job of calming my mouth after some of our spicy apps and entrees, and I loved its presentation too, as came in a pretty fountain soda cup with a green straw.

Service and Cost:
Run by Satyen and Roni Mazumdar, a father and son team, The Masala Wala feels personal and welcoming.  It gave us great satisfaction to know that what we were eating was prepared with lots of love and pride.  Satyen, the Masala Wala himself came to our table on several occasions to make sure we were happy.  He kept the atmosphere light by cracking jokes and it was clear that he and Roni have a great passion for their business.

Costs are reasonable, and include:
Appetizers - $5-$10
Entrees - $10-$22
Dessert - $4-$6
Happy Hour Special - $3 beers, $5 wine, $3-$6 apps

3 Mmmms

179 Essex Street, New York NY 10002
F Train to 2nd Avenue, J Train to Essex Street

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