Masala Indian Kitchen, located on Kaliste Saloom Road in Lafayette, is an exotic concept on what’s come to be known as “restaurant alley.”
The subtle smell of incense was pleasantly pervasive and a faraway female voice sang, while bare brick and warm spice-colored walls completed the look. The exposed industrial ceiling was festooned with small white lights.
“Lamb Rogan Josh is good if the right chef cooks it,” says my Indian acquaintance, who accompanied me to serve as menu guide. She’s from Bengal, has rings fit for a maharani and assessed the menu as Northern India where the cooking is Muslim influenced.
“There’s also an Indian saying that what Bengal thinks today, the rest of India thinks tomorrow.”
I began to believe her.
India does something radical with flavors, almost opposite from what is done in the United States and the rest of the world. Chefs like to combine ingredients with overlapping flavors, while Indian cuisine tends to mix ingredients whose flavors don’t overlap at all. This is part of what makes Indian food so appealing. The cuisine is complicated, no doubt. The average Indian dish, after all, contains at least seven ingredients, and spices usually indicate flavors that have no common ground. My friend told me her own regional cuisine revolves around fish, and hilsa is a particular favorite, prepared with mustard paste. My point exactly.
Green bell pepper, coriander and garam masala — masala is spices that have been ground into a paste for use in Indian cooking — are ubiquitous in Indian cuisine. This bit of knowledge is useful when reading the menu, whose dishes aren’t easily interpreted unless you have experience.
“Naan is a kind of bread that is used with different curries and vegetables,” said my friend, taking her job quite seriously. “Then they have a preparation that is called biryani. This has rice and meat cooked together.”
She debated over the biryani ($13-$16, depending on the meat) and a vegetarian dish (Masala has many, $12-$14) as well as the house specialties, then asked the waitress if there’s a sampler platter. There is, and she decided that’s the best way for a Westerner to go. “Many Americans like saag paneer (pureed spinach and homemade paneer, a fresh cheese similar to ricotta, $14) but I don’t,” she said, waving her hand and passing it up.
A tandoor is a clay oven and method of cooking, not a recipe, but the word has become synonymous with the marinated meats cooked in this fashion. Tandoori mixed grill ($19.50) was served sizzling and offered tandoori chicken, chicken Tikka (boneless marinated chicken breast), Malai kebab (also boneless marinated chicken breast, similar to Tikka but different spices), Seekh kebab (minced lamb mixed with herbs and spices), and tandoori shrimp (jumbo shrimp marinated in ginger and spices). Although this is five different meats to try with basmati rice and a rich tomato sauce for dipping, each can also be ordered separately on its own: $14-$14.50 for the chicken, $15-$15.50 for the kebabs, and $17.50 for the shrimp. A word of warning — the aromatic spices are addictive and one whiff is all it takes to get hooked.
That said, nothing is complimentary to the table — even the naan has to be ordered separately — and service was basic. This is not “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”; you will have to ask for a tea refill.
Desserts are traditional Indian, range from $4 to $5.50 and include kheer, Indian rice pudding, gulab jamun, a distant cousin of the doughnut; and rasmalai, a fresh cheese dumpling. We’ll have to leave room for one next time.