Monday, April 20, 2009

Restaurant Review: Masala

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 04/04/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

It would be easy to confuse Masala with a restaurant in New York or London. That is not to say it possesses any qualities particular to either of those cities – other than the fact that the language spoken there is almost exclusively English.

Masala may be located in the Czech capital, but over the year and a half of its operation, it has cultivated a mostly expatriate clientele. It isn't unusual to hear no Czech spoken at all during a meal there, and while foreigners all seem to be in on the Masala secret, few Czechs appear to know the restaurant even exists at all.

Part of the reason must be that the restaurant's owners – siblings Bobby and Bhavna Jain – speak limited Czech themselves, and so have made a concerted effort to reach out to the many foreigners that live in Masala's immediate area, Vinohrady. Jain is a constant presence on the internet portal, responding to his customers' complaints and questions and announcing new developments.

So far, the hands-on approach seems to have worked; Masala is reliably busy even on weeknights. With a restaurant of only ten or so tables, a full house isn't all that hard to pull off, but the place has a definite buzz. On one of my visits, several groups of hungry customers had to be turned away or told to wait for a table to free up.

I don't know all that much about Indian cuisine, but it doesn't take a ton of expertise to recognize that Masala is one of the best Indian restaurants in the city. There's a lot of love and hard work that's been put into this place, and it shows.

The menu is laid out clearly and beautifully, with each dish explained in mouthwatering detail – helpful for those who are not too familiar with the offerings. Indian-food newbies will also appreciate Masala's flexible approach to their spices; the cooks are happy to adjust the hotness levels according to your taste, from very mild to sweat-inducing.

I asked for a chicken madras (162 CZK) done medium spicy, and it turned out just right (I am still trying to work my tastebuds up to the extreme heat of a real chicken Vindaloo, which is also on the menu). Indian dishes can be hard to pin down – there are no precise recipes, as ingredients vary from one chef to the next – but the hallmarks of a Madras are its red color and a generous amount of chili powder. This one had a sweet, tangy flavor, and the cubes of chicken nestled inside the sauce were amazingly tender.

But the chicken is nothing compared to Masala's consistently soft and juicy lamb meat. I tried it with saagwala (233 CZK), a thick curry made with spinach and fenugreek that was perfect for scooping up with a slice of naan bread (39 CZK). The naan, by the way, is homemade in a special tandoor oven and comes in three varieties: plain, butter, and garlic. The Masala version is a little crispier than other naans I've eaten, but it's still wonderful.

Another highlight was the tandoori chicken appetizer (185 CZK) – a Punjabi dish of chicken marinated in yoghurt, seasoned with a tandoori curry paste, and roasted in the aforementioned clay oven at a very high temperature (when the next table over is presented with a caste-iron dish that sizzles so loudly it interrupts your conversation, the tandoori chicken is probably what they're getting). I also loved the onion bhaji (69 CZK) -- chopped onions deep-fried in chickpea batter and served with a cool mint and yoghurt dipping sauce.

Even when Masala veers a bit from the more classic Indian dishes, they still manage to do very well. A tandoori chicken salad (185 CZK) was a refreshing mix of fresh veggies, chicken, and mint leaves, and a tomato and basil soup (45 CZK) had a mildly Indian accent thanks to the addition of fresh ginger (shredded coconut gave a yellow lentil soup, also 45 CZK, an ingenious boost, too).

Occasionally, the amount of meat tucked away in those pretty copper curry bowls can seem a little skimpy, but when I last visited, I was so full from the appetizers that I had to ask to have most of my main course wrapped up to take home. They are happy to do take-out meals, in case you want to eat your curry at home in front of the TV.

And with Masala's growing popularity, taking the stuff with you could be your only option. You might prefer it anyway, not because the atmosphere is bad – the restaurant is pleasantly decorated, with Indian pillows and tapestries and bright yellow walls – but because the service can be on the slow side. This is not for lack of trying by the friendly and slightly frazzled waitress, but because there is only one of her. Despite its small size, there's a lot to take care of when Masala is full, not least because Indian food demands many dishes and, inevitably, many drinks.

So I waited for a Coke that never came, and had to ask twice for another bottle of water. We also sat for a long time with empty plates in front of us, the remnants of curry sauces crustifying before our eyes. This has happened to me at Masala before on a few occasions. Basically, they could really use another server.

I would also be thrilled if they started tapping their beer – after all, the combination of spicy Indian food and a cold, freshly-tapped Czech beer is almost unbeatable. But as consolation, Masala has a selection of yoghurt lassis that they will make with a double shot of vodka (90 CZK) for those who are inclined to drink the hard stuff.

For now, I'll stick to my favorite beverage, the deliciously spicy Masala tea. I plan on coming back for it soon – and maybe next time, I'll even run into a few Czech speakers there.

Mánesova 13
Praha 2 - Vinohrady
Tel: 222 251 601

photographs 1, 3, 4, 5 Jindřich Mynařík for Lidové Noviny; all others


Pivní Filosof said...

"I would also be thrilled if they started tapping their beer – after all, the combination of spicy Indian food and a cold, freshly-tapped Czech beer is almost unbeatable."
That is if they have Czech beer at all, and not eurorubbish like Stella or Heineken.

Anonymous said...

This is a great little place and the food has always been good quality when I have been there - especially the tandoori chicken appetizer. I'm salivating just thinking about it! I have also never had any problems with the size of portions and in fact am more likely to walk (roll) out of there feeling bloated than still hungry!

OK, so we have a good Indian in Prague, a couple of decent Thai places etc but can you please find a good Chinese for us now?!

Laura Baranik said...

I'm really not sure about the Chinese, Anonymous... if anyone has a good tip for Chinese food please let us know!

Anonymous said...

Laura -

thanks for a great review. Love Masala - and recommend it to everyone. As for Chinese - good question. I wonder if there are any good Vietnamese restaurants in the city. I have gone to a few restaurants inside of the Vietnamese part of town (Saldo? Sorry, the name escapes me), but it befuddles me that good restaurants are not open to the general public. I also wish that I could find a good Persian restaurant...

Laura - I appreciate your wit, your precision, your anti-smoking while I am eating stance, and the general tone of the reviews - keep it up!

R. said...

Rumor has it that the little "Chinese" restaurant across from Ultramarine serves authentic pho (the owners are Vietnamese). I want to check it out.

No word on good (American style) Chinese though. :-(

Rory said...

It's a great place and probably the best 'Indian' food in town (although 'Indian food' is so regional that it is a very loose way to describe it as can be very varied to where it is cooked).

I have to disagree about the generalisation about the clientele. I've always been here with Czechs in tow and there have always been at least one table of Czech speakers in here. Probably because young professional Czechs can manage to speak in more than their own tounge and are well travelled and experienced. Not as much the secret as you would like to suggest and over egging that a bit for your newspaper readers.

Also, as good as a beer is with a curry thats the English way to eat it. I recomend some milky sweet tea, that's how it should be done!

Anonymous said...

The 'pho' in the restaurant across from Ultramarine is quite good, but the best pho in town is definitely in the Sapa Vietnamese wholesale market in Libus. I've had it in a few of the "hole-in-the-wall" places there, and they're all very good - I take my family there once a month from across town just for that. One note - although it's "wholesale market" (with a sign at the entrance saying that a business license is required to enter), in reality it's open to the public (just drive on in - no one checks, no one cares).