"Are you familiar with Indian food?" our server asked as we were studying Masala's leather-bound menu. We nodded. "Then you should order our traditional Indian dishes."
"Oh, we were interested in the fusion menu," I told her.
"Yes, that's good, too," she replied, though her smile faded a bit. "We designed those dishes as an introduction to Indian cuisine for our customers who aren't familiar with it."
I was surprised. Most of the Asian-fusion fare out there is tailored to appeal to folks in the know, eaters who love bulgogi and steak frites with equal passion. It's often full of subtle winks and titillating who'da-thunk-it combinations.
Chinese, Japanese, and Thai fusion hit the West Coast more than a decade ago, but the simmering Indian-French fusion trend has taken longer to arrive. It started years ago in London, of course, then made it big in New York a couple years back with the high-concept, highly praised Tabla. A year ago Kenny Laungani and Chitra Thapar of Danville caught on, introducing Masala Indian Fusion Restaurant.
Meal One started off with black-pepper pappadums rolled into crisp tubes, followed by classical vegetarian samosas that looked like the model for a Louis Kahn project: two pyramids facing each other across concentric pools of tamarind and cilantro chutney on a square white plate. They weren't just pretty, but good, too -- the crisp dough wrapping didn't get sogged down by oil, and the insides contained layers of coriander seeds, turmeric, and potatoes and peas, which slowly unveiled themselves once the bright flash of the herbal and tangy sauces we dredged them in wore off.
A second appetizer, a mixed salad with a mango-cumin vinaigrette, never showed up -- the only blip in the smooth, formal service we received. Everything else came in the right time, in the right place, with no prompting or waiting. Not only did both owners ask us how we liked our meal, all the busers did, too.
The service wasn't the only formalist element at Masala. If it weren't for the tall stacks of copper pots sitting above the range, you wouldn't know Masala for an Indian restaurant by its looks. No mash of Ganesh statues, colorful fabric swaths, and paintings of the Taj Mahal here, but a streamlined California bistro with white walls and hardwood floors, lit modestly by alabaster half-domes suspended around the room.
I don't think I've ever had the chance to drink Malbecs and Viogniers with my curries, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The wine list contains an impressive number of Californian and less-familiar vintages offered by the glass -- it is heavy on crisp, floral whites that float above the spices and big-boned reds that get down and dirty with them.
On the plate as well as on paper, the fusion entrées -- a good mix of meat-centered and vegetarian -- look tantalizing. But our server was right. The two entrées we tried were designed for those who needed a bit of hand-holding to appreciate Indian cuisine: Not in terms of the complexity of the spicing, but the intensity. My grilled lamb was cut from the shank, not the loin, so it stayed a little tough even when cooked to a rosy medium. And the "jade" sauce, a succulent, mild blend of reduced sherry and pureed herbs, seemed taken from the recipe books of a Mogul emperor, subtle and creamy -- but was just too mild to complement the red meat, like dressing a lumberjack in a floral silk peignoir. I liked the saffron-pine nut sauce on Jeremy's grilled portobello mushroom even more, sweetened just by the buttery nuts and perfumed with discreet whiffs of spice. But it had nothing to say to the earthy, meaty mushroom it coated.
The dessert explored more adventurous territory, and struck gold: A ginger-serrano crème brûlée had the texture and color of softened butter. You'd inhale the scent of the ginger as the velvety custard washed over the tongue, and by the time you swallowed you realized that it had left a warm tingle wherever it touched. Take that, gulab jamun.
I returned ten days later to order from the other side of the menu. We finally tasted the salad we hadn't received the time before: baby greens and oranges dressed in a vinaigrette full of fruit, the muskiness of the mango enhanced by the cumin. We also shared little logs of paneer (a housemade fresh-curd cheese pressed until it resembles extra-firm tofu) rolled in fenugreek and sesame seeds and deep-fried. A big dollop of tart cilantro-chile chutney made them sparkle. We also ordered chicken pakora, slices of chicken breast coated in a tandoori-red batter of chickpea flour and spices. They weren't as crisp as they could have been, but the flavor! This was more like it.
Most of the entrées on the Indian side of the menu would be familiar to anyone who has spent enough time eating at Berkeley Punjabi/Pakistani restaurants like Kabana or Khana Peena. My main complaint with Masala is in tailoring its Indian food for Westerners -- and charging the same prices -- they serve each entrée with just a bowl of rice but no dal, chutneys, or pickles. In fact, to order dal, you have to pay $14 for an entrée-size portion. In the end, it was the only reason the $35-a-person price tag gave me pause.
Our server offered us four levels of spiciness: medium spicy, spicy, very spicy, and fire.
"I'll take fire," said David.
"Are you sure?" asked the waiter. "Are you sure?" I echoed. "Fire" at a couple of Berkeley's Indian restaurants would burn straight through the cheeks of anyone who hasn't lined her mouth with asbestos. But fire it was.
I'll grant you, "fire" was spicy, but I've shed more tears eating Sichuan-style appetizers at China Village. More importantly, Masala's classic curries, served in shiny copper bowls, were damn good. The fire-spiced mutton kandhari, tender and meaty, came in a brick-red sauce that might have passed muster in Oaxaca, an almost-sweet puree of toasty chiles and vegetables undergirded by lots of saffron that hit the nose once you'd acclimated to the heat. And the butter in the butter chicken showed up as a richness that smoothed over the tang of a bright (and very spicy) tomato-herb gravy. Even saag aloo, which we ordered to add a little green to the table, had texture and just enough spice to give it character. This time we finished up our meal with a classic Indian kulfi, a dense frozen yogurt flavored by a thick layer of pistachios and cardamom.
One more thing -- the fusion breads. Blistery garlic-basic naan, fresh out of the tandoor, blends the border between Italian and Indian flatbread. Better still is the mint paratha, a folded, fried bread brushed with a thick mint pesto and scrunched up like a silk carnation, so in every bite you get a mix of crunchy and silky herb-scented dough.
Masala's brand of fusion still appeals more in theory than in practice, but there's still room for it to develop. The chefs may treat new converts to Indian cuisine with kid gloves, but when they turn to the real thing -- the best Indian food this side of the Caldecott -- there's no holding them back.