Spices Galore

While Indian food in America has become as staid and watered-down as American Chinese, it’s nice to find a newcomer like Charles Village’s Masala Kitchen (3105B St. Paul St., [410] 235-1004) that lives up to its name with a deft hand with the kinds of bold spices, such as the coriander, cardamom, and cloves that make up a masala sauce. 

On a recent visit to Masala Kitchen’s bountiful buffet, I found all the usual suspects—chicken tikka masala, goat curry, dal makhani (lentils), and saag paneer (spinach with Indian cheese)—but when I loaded up my ample takeout platter and took it home to eat, I was actually surprised to be able to savor all the individual flavors, having been so accustomed to uniformly mediocre Indian food for years. The tikka masala featured plump cubes of chicken breast marinated in yogurt with a tomato cream sauce, while the tender pieces of meat in the goat curry that easily slide off the bone were not gamey in the least. Missing, thankfully, was a lot of the fat that usually accompanies goat, leaving this tomato-based curry without the typically greasy aftertaste. Similarly, the dal and spinach dishes had been made fresh instead of stewing in a pot for hours and losing all character, texture, and color. This is the way Indian food is supposed to look and taste, I thought, observing the colorful palette of food as my taste buds hummed in approval. 

Consistency is key in the restaurant biz, however, so I returned another day for lunch to find the place bustling with patrons, and featuring a slew of new dishes on the hot table. Greeted with a cheery smile from the servers upon entering, I had a basket of piping hot naan bread, and a tall glass of ice water waiting for me at my table after I had filled up my plate. This time the proteins included tandoori chicken and chicken vindaloo. In addition, there were several vegetarian dishes with which I was not familiar, including zucchini masala, dal tadka, and palak channa (chickpeas). The tandoori chicken had obviously been well-marinated since the meat was succulent and delicious, as well as smoky from the grill. It came with grilled onions and bell peppers, which was a nice touch. The dal dish actually featured five types of legumes all simmered together with fresh curds and spices like garam masala and turmeric, while the chickpeas swam in sauce of creamed spinach flavored with the garlicky resinous root, asafoetida. Both dishes demonstrated how spices can elevate simple foods. The crunchy zucchini popped with freshness and flavor, and it was nice to see the kitchen using seasonal vegetables, which tasted like they came from a local farmers market. Even the zeera rice on its own had a nice flavor from the whole cumin seeds and fresh coriander leaves. The only dish that did not do it for me was the chicken vindaloo, which is supposed to be one of the more fiery plates from the former Portuguese holding of Goa. Luckily, beside the buffet table, next to the mango chutney and mixed pickles, was a bowl of fresh green chilies, which I used to spike this lackluster vindaloo with some heat. I also wanted to order the crab malabar off its extensive menu, but was informed that the seafood dishes are not yet available. On our visit, Masala Kitchen was buffet only, though very reasonably priced at $9.95 for lunch and $14.95 for dinner. But now Masala Kitchen offers entrées a la carte.

For dessert there were two options—carrot halwa and kheer, or rice pudding—which in typical Indian fashion were cloyingly sweet and rich. I opted instead for some slices of cantaloupe, which provided a more fitting ending to my heavy lunch. But to its credit, Masala Kitchen’s menu did not put me into a food coma. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that its flavorful fare was not greasy, but loaded with spices instead of fat (i.e. ghee, or clarified butter). A welcome addition to the neighborhood, Masala Kitchen just might be my go-to spot when I’m tired of cooking and want to take my tongue for a ride

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