Located on the ground floor of a Masonic temple, right next to a Subway and steps from a Mattress Warehouse, Masala Art doesn’t immediately strike you as a place that could shake one of the city’s best curry-makers from his comfortable perch at Heritage India. Masala blends in too easily with a series of shopworn store fronts, even if the sign announcing the restaurant, written in a script that bravely flouts conventions of mixing upper- and lower-case letters, works hard to inject a note of sophistication into this utilitarian strip in Tenleytown.
But friendship is a powerful thing. So when owner Atul Bhola, a longtime manager at Heritage India, asked his former colleague Surinder Kumar to join him at Masala Art, the chef jumped at the chance. After overseeing Heritage’s kitchens in both Glover Park and Dupont Circle, Kumar must have viewed the small and artsy Masala, with its mere 45 seats, as a welcome reprieve from the daily (spice) grind of making curries for two sizable restaurants.
In his new job, Kumar wouldn’t even have to design a menu. Bhola already had a clear vision for his first restaurant and had exercised his right as owner to draft and print his menus before even hiring a chef. Bhola spared no expense, either; he shelled out $50 per menu. “There was no way I could change anything” to accommodate a new chef, the owner says.
Perhaps this sounds like madness to you—hiring a talented chef only to tell him he will essentially execute an owner’s menu—but consider how far Western subcontinental fare has come. Back in the mid-20th century, Madhur Jaffrey, an actress for chrissakes, was the leading authority on Indian cooking. As a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Jaffrey learned to cook via a long-distance correspondence with her mother, just another homesick student seeking comfort via food.
Bhola, by contrast, graduated from a hotel management program in Srinagar in Northern India, one of 20-some schools set up by the Indian government in recent years to train people for a career in the country’s ever-expanding hospitality industry. As part of his three-year studies, Bhola dug deep into his country’s many regional culinary styles, with the idea that he would one day lead his own kitchen. But at some point in his second year, he realized he couldn’t stand the sight of another vegetable. “It was too much for me to stare at the same green,” he says. “Every day [was] too monotonous for me.” Hello, management.
Over the years, the front of the house has been good to Bhola, from his time with the Hyatt Regency in Dehli to his 10-year run with Heritage India. So good, in fact, that Bhola saved enough to open his own place without a dime of bank loans, a financing arrangement (or lack thereof) almost guaranteed to keep a restaurant’s doors open during these overextended times. But opening Masala also allowed Bhola’s dormant culinary persona to come alive, a sleeping giant ready to throw his weight around.
The owner researched hundreds of dishes to land on the 60 or so on Masala’s menu, most of them focused on the cuisines of northern India, with occasional forays into the south (the fried and fiery “Chicken 65” appetizer) and Kashmir (the sweet, fennel-scented soufiyani murgh whose heat creeps up and almost startles you). The result is one of the most unusual and, I’d say, unorthodox Indian menus around, featuring dishes I’ve rarely encountered, like the shrimp tikka masala tak-a-tak, a chopped-up plate of crustaceans buried under a bell-pepper-heavy sauce. And yes, Bhola says, Kumar’s presence has improved a number of plates, notably the adrak mattar ke kebab, or green peas and ginger kebab. “My version was not very tasty,” Bhola confesses.
That may be, but I’ve found nothing in my three trips to Masala that was bland. I should note, though, that Bhola quickly pegged me as a critic (gotta stop asking so many questions) and was a consummate host during each of my meals. Regardless, I didn’t walk away from Masala without a few coarser thoughts. The tandoori-singed cauliflower coated in a mustard seed-laced sauce (sarson wali gobhi) was a sour jolt to the system, though not as much as the pani poori, these hollows of puffed bread stuffed with potatoes and chick peas, then treated to a small pouring of dirty masala water spiked with a pucker-worthy amount of tamarind. I ordered the latter appetizer twice, just because, for some reason, I desperately wanted to like these single-bite street snacks.
I didn’t have to work so hard with other areas of Masala’s menu. The gaulati kebab from the tawa, or griddle,section is short on visual appeal (think flattened slices of Jimmy Dean sausage) but long on technique and flavor. Ground six times and stuffed with saffron, dried chili pepper, rose petals, and other spices, these patties are then smoked with cloves smoldering in hot ghee; the preparation makes for an exquisitely soft, meaty, and floral bite. On the flip side, the tiranga paneer is a firm block of housemade cheese that conceals two ultra-thin layers of colorful, sweet-and-spicy fillings. Served on a short skewer with some tandoor-shriveled veggies, the tiranga is a revelation, a flavor-enhanced hunk of fresh cheese not drowning in some thick and spicy curry.
Masala handles the classics with equal care. The lamb vindaloo threatens to bring the heat and does. But the dish is not some flamethrower designed to test your ability to withstand fire, as if anyone really enjoys that kind of eating. No, the dish’s considerable heat is tempered with a heady allotment of vinegar and merciful chunks of starchy potatoes. (Honestly, though, I’d still order a sweet mango lassi to soothe your tongue.) The murgh makhani, better known as butter chicken, instantly ranks among the area’s best, a bowl of dark meat swimming in a spicy tomato curry balanced with those velvety dairy products.
The quality of the butter chicken is not surprising, however, given that for years Kumar produced the standard-bearer at Heritage, which is why I wanted to get a sense of whether the chef’s absence had left a hole there. Mohan Singh, a long-time cook with owner Sanjeev Tuli, has been promoted to head chef at both Heritage locations. The tomato-based sauce on Singh’s butter chicken is runnier than I remember during previous visits to the Glover Park location, but still, it has the body of honey as it rolls across your tongue. More important, deeper pleasures are buried underneath the curry’s luxuriant texture—toasty spices that wrap themselves around the tandoori chicken, radiating heat and flavor in all directions.
It’s too early for me to tell whether Kumar’s departure will handicap Heritage in the long run, but early indications point to a win-win scenario: an institution that still curries favor and a breakaway restaurant, which shows all the signs of being a true destination for fine Indian dining.
Masala Art, 4441 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 362-4441.