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Pakistani food differs from Indian food, Masala Grill and Teahouse proprietor Amman Abbasi told us, by favoring grilled meats over rich stews and using fewer spices.
It doesn't differ so much, fortunately, to alter the palak paneer (spinach and fresh cheese): Masala's version was every bit as complex — maybe with a touch of nutmeg? — as what we've enjoyed at Indian restaurants and, we're happy to report, hot enough to warm us from the inside out. Thanks to the paneer, we could finally shed our jacket and not worry so much about the chill that entered the little storefront eatery as the guests streamed in. And streamed and streamed and streamed.
Open just a few weeks in the shopping center at Rodney Parham and Reservoir roads, Masala is doing a bang-up weekend business. There was a bit of a wait for the food, but for most of the dishes we tried it was worth it.
Abbasi — who is a twentysomething musician with a wide entrepreneurial streak and supportive parents — said he's long wanted to open a restaurant featuring Pakistani fusion cuisine, one that would be “accessible,” he said, to all comers. Hence a menu that includes along with traditional dishes chicken tikka “wraps” (marinated broiled chicken rolled in naan) and a chutney burger, described as a “traditional burger with a twist.”
We like fussy food that's been dolled up with coconut milk and lots of spice and chutneys and yogurt, food of a certain intensity — which is how we would describe Indian food — so we weren't sure about the leaner Pakistani cuisine. But what Masala lacks in coconut milk it makes up for with zingers like its cilantro chutney, a pretty green combo of yogurt, cilantro and hot red peppers. The menu, while limited, is broad enough to suit all tastes.
We can't say enough good about the papadum, a cracker-thin bread made of lentil flour and cumin seeds that was served with the cilantro chutney the minute we sat down. It was a new taste and texture for this diner, terrific and surprisingly filling. Filling it needed to be, since the next course took a little longer than it should have. (One doesn't fill the time here with alcohol unless you brown bag it; Abbasi isn't planning, at the moment, to serve any alcohol in deference to his Muslim clientele. We passed the time eavesdropping on a table of hearty, laughing men speaking in a language we don't know and drinking tall glasses of milk.)
At the server's suggestion we ordered the chicken Jalfrezi, sauteed chicken in tomatoes, peppers and onions with herbs; our companion went with chicken Qorma. We preferred the Qorma because of its rich curried sauce, but the meat in both dishes was outstandingly tender. On the paneer we put a dollop of the raita (yogurt, onions and cucumber) for a delicious hot-cool contrast.
Masala offers a buffet at lunch (though you can order off the grill as well) and, with the exception of a bland potato and eggplant dish, it had plenty to please the day we went, including tasty biryani (curried basmati rice cooked with chicken and herbs), chicken Quorma and chicken tikka, tarka daal (lentils cooked with butter, onion and garlic), and mildly spiced aloo mattar, peas, potatoes and carrots.
The winner off the appetizer menu was the meat samosa, minced and spiced meat in a fried pastry. Vegetables and shrimp pakoras, coated in lentil paste and fried, weren't quite as tasty as the tempura they resembled. The naan was perfect.
Alas, Masala was out of its plum chutney, which it describes as sweet “with a kick.” We lucked out, though, in that there was still homemade mango ice cream to be had for dessert. The rice pudding made with pistachios was soupy but very good; it ran a close second to the ice cream.
Chicken and minced beef dominate the meat part of the menu, though there are a couple of shrimp dishes and a tilapia special. Several items among the kabab and tandoori wrap offerings were tempting, including chapli kabab plate of minced beef patties marinated in ginger, garlic and traditional Pakistani spices. We confess to favoring rich, hot food.
Our appetizer, two specials, the spinach and two desserts came in just under $40, a fair price.
Masala Grill and Teahouse
9108 Rodney Parham
The teahouse part of Masala's name refers to its large selection of teas, chalked on a board over the cutlery. Lassi is also on the menu, and a mango flavored variety of the traditional yogurt drink is available as well.
11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., daily.
Masala will cater. No alcohol, but you may bring in your own. Credit cards taken.