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Friday, April 13, 2012

Masala Art

Plaudits: Washingtonian 2011 Top 100, Washington City Paper's Young and Hungry's Top 50 Restaurants
Neighborhood: Tenleytown

The Setup

I remember being in Tenleytown to buy something (probably a mattress or a TV) and walking by Masala Art and thinking "oh hey, an Indian place." Within months, it had popped up on Tim Carman's list at Washington City Paper, followed quickly by a premiering spot in the Washingtonian Top 100. And yet, its situ at the fringes of the District's borders made it hard to get to. And therefore off my radar.

But at our last get-together at Cafe Nola, Official Friends of DCWD Rajistan and Shawn started talking about the dearth of good South Asian food in the city. One thing led to another, and the two of them, Official Friends of DCWD Sam and Chill, and Official Girlfriend/Co-Writer of DCWD Texas all headed out to Tenleytown to eat at Masala Art. 

The Vibe

Upon arrival, you'll note that Masala is fairly ordinary in its orderliness. White walls and wooden floors are broken up only by the occasional framed mirror, Indian paraphernalia, or Buddhist iconography. Seating is almost entirely half-booth along the two walls, in mixes of twos and fours and the occasional six in the back. A small bar sits in the back, but the space is otherwise fairly boring for a restaurant, though fairly cleaned up and neat, all-in-all.

The Food

On this trip, we let Rajistan and Shawn act as tour guide, since the rest of us ranged in knowledge of Indian cuisine from "do you think their paneer will be as good as the real thing?" (Texas) to "I don't know what any of these words mean" (me). So to start, Shawn picked out two dishes. First was the papri chaat, or as Shawn put it, "Indian nachos." In place of the tortilla chips were fried flour crisps topped with diced potatoes, chickpeas, yogurt, cilantro, and a tamarind chutney. My Indian food ignorance aside, this actually did taste relatively like nachos, with that same gooey but fresh crunch with each bite. Probably even a little lighter than I would have expected.

The other appetizer was pani poori, puffed hollows stuffed with diced potatoes and chickpeas, topped with chutney. Each puff was supposed to be filled with mint water and eaten before the whole affair got too soggy to deal with. Like the papri chaat before it, each bite was fairly light, an burst of flavor with the mint water mixing all of the other flavors into something almost soupy. Altogether, it was pretty light, which is all you can really ask for in an app I guess.

The table, with an oft-pescetarian and a vegetarian among us, decided to split the meal half-meat, half-non, ordering six portions to share family style. The three meat dishes started with the murgh makhani: charbroiled chicken in a tomato cream sauce. This was a pretty standard dish, one that you could probably find at any Indian restaurant. The big difference was the clarity of the flavor, with very strong notes of tomato and heat.

The hottest dish of the night was the lamb vindaloo, a curry with vinegar and potatoes. While the meat was fairly tender, it hit a Scoville level that was a little too much for me, and limited both my enjoyment and actual ingestion of the curry. Still, the spice level aside, it was a pretty good combination of flavors.

The best meat for me was actually the fish curry, sole cooked in a coconut and mint gravy. Rather than relying solely on overwhelming levels of heat, it was light and refreshing, the fish cooked to melt-in-your-mouth levels. Overall, perhaps because of the mint base or perhaps because of the meat, it struck a good balance between soft and flavorful and was definitely the standout in terms of taste and creativity.

Of the three vegetable dishes, the most forgettable was the dal makhani, black lentils in a creamy sauce. It suffered from being a vegetable dish - which in my eyes, is of course, already a little bit of a downer - but it tasted enough like the other dishes to be rendered nondescript. Thinking back on the night, this is the one I remember more by name than by flavor.

On the other hand, the saag paneer - paneer cheese in creamy spinach  - was a welcome and flavorful addition to the meal. Like the chicken, it too was pretty conventional (which honestly, is maybe why I viewed it so favorably), but it also was a solid dish.On the "authentic scale," it rated pretty highly for those in the know in our group.

Last, was the malai kofta: cottage  cheese dumpling stuffed with crumbled paneer in tomato based sauce. This was very good, chunks of gooey cheese with enough textural difference to make it interesting. The flavors melded seamlessly into an overarching richness that won the title of Texas's favorite for the night.

The Verdict

All in all, some pretty solid Indian food. Maybe not Rasika, but probably a little more soulful and surely more authentic.

Food Rating: ***
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 2.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
Quiet Drinks
(out of 5) ($25-$50 for two)
: Visit the American University Museum, for a decent collection of international art.

Masala Art on Urbanspoon

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