Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
Kalustyan's Masala Café
Murray Hill, NY

Review by SuSu, MaceVindaloo

Sides Dishes, Masala CafeThis is the third or fourth restaurant effort of the ultra-successful Kalustyan's Gourmet International Spice Shop string of efforts in this busy, eclectic neighborhood of New York City down the street from the Chrysler Building, nicknamed "Curry Hill." They created "cafeteria Indian" cuisine in Curry in a Hurry, then a deli upstairs from their spice store (nowadays called "Mediterranean Deli" or something ...??), then the sit-down restaurant Curry Leaf and now the much more upmarket Masala Café. This restaurant is riding the "fusion cuisine" wave between Asian and European-origin cooking styles. Only usually, the "Asian" half is Thai or southeast Asian, and the "Euro" half is Italian or maybe Portuguese. French had fallen out of favor and was considered "old-fashioned" by those who know nothing, and Indian was considered "overdone" and "all the same." Nothing is further from the truth, of course.

Facade, Masala Cafe Unfortunately, with the food-as-entertainment revolution in this country, mixing and matching was akin to a sporting event, and you could win or lose. As #1-ranked cooking school teacher Jacques Pépin pointed out, "If no one did it before, there is likely a very good reason for it. Learn what's right first, then go fuse and create. Otherwise, it's just luck ... or frequently, unluck."

So how does a combination of Indian and French fare? Chef Geetika Khanna grew up in Delhi and London before settling in New York City, and hopped from career to career till she found one she likes enough to stay in. She's done a lot of fusion cooking at a variety of well-known restaurants, but learned the basics at the French Culinary Institute before running into the fusion trendy world. The sanest approach is Indian ingredients and spicings with French techniques and presentation, and no surprise that she's chosen that option for the Masala Café. Sane and good will win this race, and the results are very good food -- spicy in the flavorful sense, not hot or overdone at all.

Appetizers, Masala CafeWe had the panko-crusted scallops with salad, and the 3-samosa sampler as starters. The scallops were cooked just right -- not raw, but with smooth, creamy flesh. The panko was not crisp though, which is the point of using panko. Never mind, it was an excellent dish. The samosas are fried Indian dumpling wrapped in a crispy chickpea flour-based skin. The three fillings were potato and pea, goast cheese, and turkey and apple. It was served with a very good tamarind chutney and tamarind sauce. In fact, we dipped the scallops in the sauce and it was wondrous.

Mains, Masala CafeOur main courses were "Curry à la Maison" which was goat curry, with basmati biryani, and Sicilian Pistachio Crusted Chicken with Pistachio Tomato Chutney. I ordered Coconut Rice with the chicken, against the waiter's advice, and we had heard there were two imported tandoor ovens in the kitchen, so we ordered the Naan Basket -- you can choose three from a list: rosemary, keema (meat; on that night it was curried chicken), garlic, aloo (vegetables, including potatoes and peas), peshawari (sweet, with coconut and raisins). We chose keema, garlic, peshwari. I almost didn't order the chicken, since I don't like Italian food, and had to be assured that the pistachios were from Sicily ... there must be a less confusing way to name that dish then, no? How about "Chicken Crusted with Sicilian Pistachios"? It was all delicious, by the way -- couldn't get enough and too bad we were too full to finish our food, so we didn't order dessert, either. Next time.

Kalustyan's hired architect/interior designer Wid Chapman, an award-winning creator of interiors around the world. He chose to use the "colors of spices, from yellow to burnt orange" in this beautiful interior, and made the most of the typically long, narrow space by placing bistro-style banquets directly in the window sills of the restaurant. There is a small bolster to separate your butt from the street! The café curtains were particularly clever -- a "bistro" element that was completely Indian in style. We often forget that India is considered "Asia" and sitting in this restaurant, we are reminded gracefully.

Interior, Masala CafeThe setting is great, the food it great ... too bad the service was mediocre to bad. The hostess is Sangeeta Ahmed, the mother of the chef, and she is horrible. Even when the restaurant was empty, she sat the two of us at a tiny table for two rather than letting us sit at a table for four ... we are hearty eaters, and she should have known we might need a bigger table than fashion models might need. And then she sat a party right next to us. Uncomfortable, they got up and chose their own table (and if they hadn't, I would have gotten up and left). She goosestepped back and forth up and down the restaurant -- what is this, Gestapo hostess night?? And she ignored us when we wanted something, then came and took away our half-drunk $3 glass of soda away before we were finished with it! In the end, the bartender -- a plump, jolly woman -- pulled another table up against ours and told us since we ordered so much, we'd need more space. (We didn't eat it all, but we ordered it to take home. Leftovers are good!) The waiter was knowledgeable, but kind of cold. So overall, service is a big negative. (The chef's mother's recipe for rice pudding is served here, but you know, I don't think that's a good thing, considering how the mother behaved that night.)

At the point of this writing, Masala Café has been open less than six months, and we hope these are simply nervous aberrations in what should have been a good evening out. The bill came to $65 for 2 sodas, 2 appetizers, 2 mains, the naan sampler, and a side dish. Not bad, but I would have tipped better if the service deserved it. I wish Chef Khanna success, but I think she needs to fire her General Manager/Mother.

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