Tom Sietsema's First Bite: Masala Art in Tenleytown
When the former manager of Heritage India opened a place of his own in Tenleytown this fall, he recruited the top chef from his former employer in Glover Park to cook for him.
How did Atul Bhola manage the neat trick of hiring Surinder Kumar, a 10-year veteran of Heritage India?
"Sheer love and respect for each other," says Bhola, the owner of Masala Art. His 45-seat dining room replaces Kuma but retains the intimacy of the late Japanese-Korean restaurant. Indian prints from Bhola's collection draw our eyes to the walls, painted a soothing shade of green. "I love green," says the first-time restaurant owner. "It's the color of progress."
Pals and I mostly follow his lead one night when we drop in for dinner. Pani poori, semolina shells containing a dab of diced potatoes and chickpeas, makes for an entertaining launch. At the table, the fragile puffs are treated to a splash of water spiced with cumin and chili powders. "Eat them in one bite," Bhola instructs us as we pop the little globes into our mouths. A faint crackle is followed by a rush of liquid and a stab of heat.
Lamb chops cooked first in the tandoor and finished on the stove elicit smiles all around, too. Green papaya in the marinade makes the meat tender, while ginger lends zest.
In the malai paneer, cubes of cottage cheese sit in a tomato sauce described by the menu as tangy but translated by the tongue as overly sweet.The breads are addictive, however, and we end up ordering seconds of warm nan flecked with rock salt and cilantro.
Bhola says his kitchen goes easy on the butter and cream, relying instead on spice blends to give the food flavor -- hence Masala in the title of his maiden creation.
4441-B Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-362-4441. Entrees, $8.50-$19.95.