Editors' pick

Masala Art

Indian
$$$$ ($15-$24)
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Editorial Review

2010 Dining Guide

2010 Fall Dining Guide

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010

Any neighborhood would be glad to claim this Indian newcomer, but restaurant-reduced Tenleytown gets the honor. Making the smart, pistachio-colored destination even more endearing are the skill sets of owner and host Atul Bhola and chef Surinder Kumar, former associates at Heritage India in Glover Park. A cheat sheet for their venture includes Kumar's terrific griddled potato cakes, brassy with ginger and jalapeno, and lashed with sweet yogurt and tamarind sauces; tandoor-cooked cauliflower spiked with mustard seeds and mustard oil; chicken in a velvety tomato cream sauce; cottage cheese dumplings with cores of dried fruit; jalapeno-pumped minced lamb kebab … actually, it's easier to tick off what's not so hot than to basically recite the whole menu. (Baby lamb on roti is tough.) Any fire calls for a beer chaser, but wine comes in second, given the half-price bottles Sunday through Thursday nights. Noise remains a problem here. So does my lack of restraint.

Full review

Where the stuffing goes beyond samosas
Masala Art serves food that's hard to resist

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, January 31, 2010

I said farewell to a 32-inch waist years ago, but a little trick helps me avoid the racks at Big and Tall. It's not a diet per se, but a way of thinking about the food on my plate. To keep my weight in check, I try to finish only dishes that are truly delicious. Over decades of professional eating, the ritual has kept mountains of mashed potatoes and rivers of chocolate sauce -- and hopefully an obvious paunch -- at bay.

So why am I loosening my belt at a storefront in Tenleytown? Masala Art shifts my eat-what's-good instincts into overdrive. Among the excuses I find for returning scraped-clean plates here are fritters of onion and potato, dipped in a chickpea batter spiked with red chili paste and ajwain seeds, their flavor reminiscent of thyme. The menu of the months-old Indian retreat calls the $4 appetizer aloo aur pyaz ki bhaji. I call the spiky gold nuggets sensational.

Bites of chicken in a chunky gravy of tomato, onion and curry leaf have a similar effect on me. I can't keep my fork away from the snack, which is billed as Chicken 65 and goes down like Buffalo wings as imagined by a (good) Indian cook. They're sweet and hot and even more irresistible in the presence of bread baked in the tandoor.

That's the problem with this restaurant: Too much is so good, you can't stop eating it. The tandoor-baked breads are not mere swabs for sauce but could be eaten, and enjoyed, on their own; the naan with cilantro and rock salt is terrific, as is the kulcha richly stuffed with minced lamb. Masala Art offers combinations you don't see often around here, but even its more familiar dishes can be revelations. Consider its samosas. They're flakier than a lot of the competition, and their filling of peas, potatoes and sweet raisins tastes fresher, too. A burst of cardamom in every bite helps. In the same vein, soft logs of minced lamb pulse with heat from jalapeno peppers, a shock offset with breezy mint. Pureed spinach is a vibrant green, flecked with corn and rich with garlic. A touch of cream adds sheen to the liquid salad.

If the black lentils taste familiar, the reason might be Surinder Kumar. He was behind the legume's success, its creaminess and sass, as the longtime chef at Heritage India in Glover Park. There, he worked alongside Atul Bhola, that restaurant's general manager and now the owner of Masala Art. The two make a great team, with Kumar sending out nuanced Indian cooking and his boss making sure we're having an informed time by detailing the many joys on the menu.

Bhola is assisted by some affable servers, including one who identifies herself as Shree, which is short for Shrejana. If you're unfamiliar with anything, she'll describe it so vividly that she practically gives away the recipe. And she's quick to dispel misconceptions. "Kebabs come in different shapes," she says when she's asked about adrak mattar ke kebab, one of a handful of dishes cooked on a tawa, or griddle. The soft patty of mashed peas shot through with fresh ginger is not at all starchy; a dunk in the accompanying cilantro sauce imparts a serious sting (thanks to lemon juice and vinegar in the mix). Vegetarians are going to adore this place, and carnivores are likely to hop on the bandwagon, too, after exploring Kumar's meatless specialties, which never leave you feeling there is something missing. They include pleasantly sweet onion fritters cloaked in yogurt tinted yellow with turmeric, or pyazi kadhi pakodi.

With the exception of an endless loop of same-sounding Indian music, the 45-seat setting of mint-green walls and soft banquettes is easy to like. Not every dish deserves huzzahs, however. Shrimp marinated in yogurt and chili powder are big and dense and rather ordinary. Okra tossed with sesame seeds and seasoned with cumin is most notable for the soft, sweet onions that pick up those flavors. Meanwhile, the lamb vindaloo appears to follow the Gridiron Club's approach to teasing people: The main course singes, but it never burns. If you're a hothead, you might be disappointed with its muted vinegar seasoning. More than likely, though, you'll leave this restaurant with your tongue dancing from the all the garlic, chilies and herbs.

The wine list is like that of a lot of Indian restaurants, whose selections encourage you to order a Kingfisher beer. But it seems churlish to complain given the bottle discounts: Masala Art offers all 29 choices for half-price Sunday through Thursday. And when's the last time you saw a Manhattan for less than $10?

A confession: I've made only a tiny dent in the desserts. Blame that on all the extra breads and savories I tend to pack in at this restaurant. As far as Masala Art is concerned, I'm lousy at pacing myself.

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Bathroom humor: Notice how many patrons exit the restroom smiling? When he took over the place, Atul Bhola inherited a bathroom whose two unwalled toilets face each other. He jokes, "I should have added a chess set."