A terrific little Indian restaurant, far from the madding crowd of East 6th Street, has popped up on the trendy Lower East Side, on Essex Street, right off East Houston. It’s freshly sourced, expertly prepared and reasonably-priced dishes are quickly rising to the top of every Indian food lover’s list. And its name means Spice (Masala) Merchant (Wala).
Open less than a year, MasalaWala is a father and son operation, dedicated to South-Asian street food. The restaurant’s distinctive logo – a gold coin with the profile of host, Satyen Mazumdar — memorializes the coins father Satyen and his friends, used to collect with the express purpose of spending them on street snacks sold by “masala walas” in India.
MasalaWala’s food is the real deal, especially considering its mid-to-low price range. (It has catered for The Asian Society, among others.) The warm and welcoming Satyen and his son, Roni, a sophisticated entrepreneur, working with Executive Chef Abdul Junel, have come up with a jewel of a menu. At a recent press dinner, as their guests, we sampled a delicious Tasting Menu that highlighted the restaurant’s signature dishes. It was a feast.
We were offered four Starters, three of which were outstanding. Most surprising – and one of my favorites – is a dish rarely appearing on a New York menu. It tastes exactly like Sweet-and-Sour pork, except that it’s a vegetarian dish, Kolkata Gobi Manchurian ($8), whose key ingredient – though totally unrecognizable — is Cauliflower, tossed in ginger, garlic and Indian-Chinese fusion spices. Fabulous. Even those who think they hate Cauliflower will love this dish.
Another winner, and taste surprise, is the delicate, bite-sized crispy Dahi Puri ($6). It has to be eaten in one gulp because it’s delicious liquid yogurt filling bursts into your mouth like a refreshing thimbleful of lassi. Addictive and not to be missed.
Samosa Chaat ($7) is surprising because it is anything but the usual stuffed samosa. Instead, the vegetable samosa lies hidden beneath a blanket of mildly spiced chickpeas floating in a delicious sauce of yogurt, tiny chopped noodles, onions and chutney.
Our parade of Signature Entrées in half-portion bowls paired perfectly, at the suggestion of Roni, with a Spanish red wine — a smooth counterpoint to the spicy dishes – a Noya organic Tempranillo.
I immediately reached for one of my perennial favorites, Paneer Saagwala ($12). But in this case, the fresh creamed spinach with cubes of Indian cottage cheese was particularly well spiced, raising the dish a notch above any other that I’ve tasted.
Equally superior is the Dal Makhani ($11), black lentils in a buttery, deep red cumin and cilantro sauce. Unlike most mushy Dals, the black lentils are almost meaty. No wonder it’s a chef specialty.
Two other total winners – and new additions to the menu — are the Lamb Pasanda ($18) and Fish Malabar ($20). The slow-cooked Australian lamb melts into a creamy, garlic and coriander spiced sauce the color of cinnamon. Heaven! And the savory fish dish from Northern Kerela, with coconut milk, ginger, turmeric and mustard seeds, is also memorable.
In my opinion, the chunks of chicken in the Chicken Jalfrezi were a touch too dry, although its paprika-tinted sauce delicious. Another chicken option is the Nawabi Chicken Biryani ($13), with its medley of slow-cooked, long-grain Basmati rice, saffron and spices. And of course, what Indian meal would be complete without some Naan. It’s a toss up between the Butter and Fresh Garlic Naan. Both were soft and delicious, especially when dipped in the restaurant’s Vegetable Raita ($3), a creamy yogurt relish that is sweet, spicy and cool at the same time. Don’t miss it!
Save room for MasalaWala’s home-made Indian ice cream. My favorite – and generally most popular – is the mango, made from the Alfonso variety – called the King of Mangoes – imported from India.
I was too full to order the Masala Chai, considered by some to be the best freshly brewed Chai with Indian spices in the city. I will definitely try it on my next visit.
The MasalaWala, small and cozy, is open for Lunch and Dinner, and there’s a Happy Hour from 4 to 6:30 PM with Indian small plates, $5 wines, $3 beers and 40 % off bottles of wine.
Indian food lovers definitely have a new destination!
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
179 Essex Street
(Between East Houston & Stanton Streets)