Those who remember the old Masalawala on the Lower East Side may breathe a sigh of relief: The emphasis on the food of West Bengal remains.
Satyen Mazumdar, and son Roni Mazumdar, operated the original restaurant from 2011 to 2021. Today, the elder Mazumdar still presides over the dining room at the new Park Slope Masalawala & Sons; the night I went I watched as he paused to kibitz at the bar, then headed to the backyard, spinning stories about how the dishes were made in Kolkata a half-century ago. The restaurant’s kitchen, he said, consciously replicates some of those methods.
The old restaurant seated 30 or so in a shallow space; the new one can accommodate twice that number. It is strikingly furnished with colorful floral folk motifs, though the effect is as much a psychedelic dance club as a country store with sundry items available for takeout. The updated menu showcases Bengali food, with its preponderance of mustard oil, green chiles, coconut, eggplant, yogurt, and hearty flavors, yet stray dishes from Gujarat, Hyderabad, and Kashmir are also featured.
Friends and I went during the opening days; this is a risky undertaking, since a restaurant rarely starts out at peak performance, and as the days go by the chefs realize if a dish isn’t working or needs to be altered. But with that caveat, I’d have to say the food is not yet up to par for a restaurant group that includes stunners like Dhamaka, Adda, and Semma. Dishes arrived overcooked (we found ourselves scraping a lamb curry out of the blackened bottom of the pan), or ungenerous in the allocation of ingredients (including four tiny shrimp in a $36 entree). Still, there is much promise in this place with its appealing regional menu, and we will doubtlessly return.
This dish was the best thing we ate. Arriving in a pastry-covered coconut, which was dramatically chipped away tableside to reveal the contents, it was an updated version of a dish served at the original Masalawala. Inside were small prawns – head, shells, and all – in a richly textured green sauce. Every bite was heavenly, and the crunch of the shells was a welcome addition.
Scraping the last spoonfuls off the interior of the coconut was like hunting for treasure in a deep cave. But the dish was nearly upstaged by its accompaniment: a metal cup of kalajeera rice, a short-grained aromatic type favored in West Bengal. It swam in so much ghee that the grains nearly slipped off the serving spoon. $36
Indian cuisine is rife with all sorts of fritters, some filled with vegetables, some not, usually served with a dipping sauce — pakora being just one example. But subudana vada is fairly unique in the genre, since these potato fritters sport embedded tapioca pearls – a symphony of squishiness, like a solid and savory form of bubble tea (boba are also made of tapioca). Here, it’s accompanied by a dip of cumin-laced yogurt that adds extra tartness and earthy flavor. $11
Mutton yakhni pulao
This composed rice dish, inspired centuries ago by the pilaf brought to India during the Muslim conquest, consists of basmati rice cooked with mutton in a strong broth known as yahkni. It is native to the state of Kashmir, and the elder Mazumdar recounted how some Kolkata neighbors who hailed from the Himalayan state taught him and his son how to make it. You’ve probably never tried a more powerful pilaf, redolent of sweet Silk Road spices. $34
This barramundi — a type of sea bass marinated in a thick mustard paste, wrapped in a banana leaf, and steamed — is a quintessential Bengali recipe. The fish achieves a texture like a mousse, with sharp flavors added by the mustard and embedded green chiles. Those black dots that speckle the caked marinade are poppy and mustard seeds. $21
This dish enjoyed all over Northern India as well as neighboring Bangladesh and Pakistan, consists of minced goat and goat liver in a thick sauce flavored with spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and bay leaf. The richness is such that only a small amount can be spooned up and eaten at a time, and the jiggly egg actually serves to attenuate rather than enrich the strong flavors. $23