Under owner Roni Mazumdar and chef Chintan Pandya, Adda and Rahi may have garnered more attention than any other Indian restaurants in town. The first is acclaimed for its presentation of northern Indian fare from a domestic perspective, using masalas that are freshly ground, resulting in food that tastes fresher and brighter, while the second became known for innovative cooking in an upscale bistro setting. The menu at Rahi incorporates dishes that originated all over the Indian countryside, highlighting the chef’s creativity in both technique and ingredients, with five-spice cauliflower with spaghetti squash being among its most startling selections.
But few know there was a predecessor that opened in 2011 on the Lower East Side, anticipating many aspects of the two restaurants that ensued. The MasalaWala is situated in a broad, shallow storefront just south of Houston on Essex Street. The restaurant is owned by Mazumdar, but involves his father as host and manager. Both are natives of Kolkata, the former Calcutta in the West Bengal state, an area often underrepresented on Indian menus in New York. The chef is Asim Debnath.
“I am the masala wala,” beamed Satyen Mazumdar, the owner’s father, a compact man with metal-framed glasses and a charming manner. “I’m the one who brings the spices,” an accurate translation of the restaurant’s name. On a recent Saturday evening, a friend and I occupied a two-top hemmed between sidewalk and storefront by a canvas partition. An improvised stand sold chicken kebabs and samosas to passersby at the opposite end of the building.
The restaurant is near a bus stop, so no street seating is permitted. Nevertheless, the slight discomfort of the outdoor arrangement proves well worth it when the food begins to arrive. The current menu offers a dozen dishes, consisting of four street snacks and eight main courses — running to curries and biryanis — plus a handful of breads, sides, and desserts. “All the food comes from Kolkata,” Mazumdar pere told us.
Gobi Manchurian ($12) is the starter the dad most enthusiastically touted, a vegetarian choice from the Indo-Chinese canon wildly popular back in India, and a comparatively recent addition to the national cuisine. The florets had been lightly floured, deep-fried, and then engulfed in a spicy and agreeably sweet sauce. Another we tried was a samosa chaat, a shopper’s snack of a crushed potato turnover concealed under a salad topped with multiple chutneys and sev, crunchy fried noodles. Usually, a samosa chaat is an amorphous heap upon the plate; the care with which this one had been assembled made it that much more enjoyable.
Really, you could make a fine meal of a pair of appetizers (others include potato samosas and chile chicken), but then some enthralling entrees would be missed. Adda is famous for its dum biryani. There, this casserole of rice and goat, chicken, or a vegetable mélange is sealed inside a pastry. At the MasalaWala, there’s no pastry, but the lamb biryani is brilliant, with generous chunks of tender meat that have been marinated in yogurt and spices in the fashion of Lucknow, a city northwest of Kolkata in the Uttar Pradesh state, where the dish originated. It comes topped with onions cooked to a brown frizzle, and a pink raita, which should be spooned over every bite.
While biryani might be seen as the signature of the entire chain, a dish even more impressive was recently added to the sidewalk menu. Chicken rezala ($16) is a Kolkata classic, boneless chicken fragments immersed in a thick, smooth sauce of yogurt and cashews. Brought to the table, it exudes a delicate odor of cardamom, with a gravy so profuse it can soak a large quantity of basmati rice. Fishing around in it, you’ll find fragments of dark- and light-meat chicken you had originally missed, so thick is the sauce. I can’t remember having enjoyed a curry so much since the pandemic began.
As we finished our mango kulfi, a condensed-milk ice cream made in-house and formed into a great dome, Roni Mazumdar came out and thanked us for coming. He told us that it had been difficult to reopen the MasalaWala due to lack of sidewalk space. “At Adda, we can cook on a big grill pushed out into the street, but we can’t do something similar here.” His dad chimed in, “I was tired of staying in my apartment up in the Bronx, and he wanted to get me working in the restaurant again.”
His son told us that his and Pandya’s new Lower East Side restaurant at the Essex Crossing development, Dhamaka, will hopefully open in a few weeks. “The chef will be Chintan Pandya,” Mazumdar told us. He went on to say that the place will have plenty of outdoor seating, but that the landlord was the city, which was an unfamiliar situation presenting its own challenges.
While that new restaurant is likely to also seize the public’s attention, remember that the food at the MasalaWala is very good, despite the restaurant’s continued under-the-radar profile. 179 Essex Street, between Houston and Stanton streets, Lower East Side