Spice of Life
Lentils may be good for you, but they taste like the dried paste from a kindergartner's Popsicle-stick project. They sort of taste like the Popsicle sticks, too.
Since lentils are a staple of Indian food, resourceful Indian cooks long ago figured out how to spice up the legumes. Enough cloves, cinnamon, mace, fennugreek, mustard seed, pepper, garlic, turmeric, nutmeg and cumin, and even a Popsicle stick tastes pretty delicious. Still, the proper balance of those spices is critical to Indian cooking, particularly vegetarian Indian cooking: No one spice should stand out, and nothing should overpower what little natural flavor the dish's main components bring to the table.
That Masalaa excels at this balancing act shouldn't be a surprise, since this small, sparsely decorated eatery's name means "spice" in Hindu. It was opened a year ago by Ravi Kumar and Ehmad Ansari, two strict vegetarians who are sensitive to the needs of Aurora's large Indian community as well as the needs of diners who enjoy attentive service and a simple, pleasant atmosphere. At Masalaa, they've assembled a roster of over a hundred dishes -- all vegetarian, some rarely found on other menus around town, some simply done better than at other Indian restaurants in the area. For example, while every Indian eatery does a mulligatawny soup, Masalaa's version boasted a vegetable-based broth rather than the usual chicken; puréed lentils, gently spiced with curry, gave the soup its creamy texture. A less familiar offering, rasam, featured another smooth purée of lentils and tomatoes that got its oomph from tamarind, coriander and roasted mustard seeds. Rasam is a dish native to south India, a region that has a distinctive cuisine of its own.
Sambar is another southern staple, a stew made from several types of dal, or legumes, cooked down with many spices, including coriander, fennugreek, cumin, chiles, turmeric and the amusingly named asafoetida, also known as devil's dung because it's the stinky sap of a big fennel-like plant grown in India. Used correctly, though, asafoetida can be the equivalent of an angel's kiss, because something about cooking this spice down -- in very tiny amounts, mind you -- gives the right dish an unusual, sweet garlic flavor that lacks the bitterness of regular garlic cloves. Masalaa's sambar, which mixed super-soft pieces of eggplant, potatoes, chiles and carrots with that spice mix and black mustard seed (used often in Indian cooking because it has a stronger, hotter taste than the more common white or yellow), came with several meals. Our dosas -- thick, giant crepes made of rice and lentil flour -- arrived warm and ready to be torn into pieces for a dunk into the side of sambar or a bowl of chile-enhanced, dark-orange mango chutney. Sambar also served as a dipper for the wonderful uthapam, an Indian pancake reminiscent of Ethiopian injera. The batter -- another rice/lentil combination -- had been allowed to ferment slightly so that it bubbled all over during cooking but resembled a regular pancake in texture and flavor. Even the idlys, little flying-saucer-shaped rice cakes with the consistency of grits, swam in a sea of sambar.
Many ubiquitous Indian starters also hail from the southern part of the country. A sampler allowed us to try eight options, all of them fried in heart-healthy oil. As a result, the tidy, fat samosa was less greasy than most, with saffron-yellowed mashed-potato insides; a chickpea-battered onion bajji had the texture and flavor of an onion-scented sweet potato. Although it was hard to distinguish between the medu vadas (deep-fried doughnuts made from lentils), the masala vada (a lentil patty) and the keerai vada (a spinach-and-lentil patty), the boondi raitha sure stood out: These popcorn-like chickpea puffs had been fried, then sautéed in a sweet, almost cream-cheesy yogurt mixture pumped up with fresh cilantro and big pieces of red chile.
If it seems as though the cuisine of southern India is all about legumes, it is -- except for the part that's all about rice, which came with every Masalaa meal. But a few of the entrees were lentil-free. The channa saag, liberally sweetened with nutmeg, relied on well-minced chickpeas for its heartier texture; the aloo mutter was a sweet mix of potatoes and peas in a rich, creamy gravy. Paneer, the ever-popular homemade Indian cheese, starred in a tomato-based vegetarian tikka masala; although this dish usually includes chicken, we didn't even miss the bird, since the thin, curry-spiced brew included large cubes of cheese that had been fried until crispy and golden on the outside.
We encountered only two disappointments among Masalaa's otherwise excellent offerings. The chapati, a tortilla-shaped flatbread that's normally a standout on Indian menus, was heavy, and it paled in comparison to the dosas and upathams. And after a meal full of exciting choices, the desserts were a letdown: The gulab jamon, usually a heavenly little bowl of doughnut holes soaking in syrup, had an off taste, and the cloves in the kheer, India's answer to rice pudding, were so cloying that eating it was like getting a mouthful of pistachio-studded perfume.
At Jewel of India, on the other hand, we were unhappy with just about everything we sampled. This restaurant squeezed into a Westminster strip mall is an attractive space, with Indian textiles hanging from the ceiling and on the walls and elegant carved wood accenting the dining room, but what's happening in the kitchen isn't pretty.
Pav Toor first opened the eatery in 1999 and served well-made Indian food -- including many meat dishes -- that covered the major regions of India. When I ate there in February 2001, everything was top-notch -- and then just two weeks later, Toor sold the eatery to Jujhar Singh, who was once a partner in the well-liked India's restaurant.
Today, Jewel of India is anything but a gem. My first taste of the lunch buffet's saag paneer sent me scrambling for a glass of water (which was hard to come by, since the service was uptight and stingy). The pepper hadn't been thoroughly mixed into the dish, and a few bites into what had appeared to be sweet, creamy spinach, my ears nearly blew off. Other dishes also suffered from haphazard cookery: The tandoori chicken was too tangy, mushroom mattar that was supposed to be spicy wasn't at all, and a garbanzo dish tasted of nothing but mealy garbanzos. A curry contained fish so dry that the chunks were as chewy as jerky, and even the plain basmati rice was dry. (Maybe it's time to turn down the buffet table?) The only keepers we found at lunch were a luxuriously velvety dal soup, cumin-kissed and possessing a faint peppery bite, and the kheer, delightfully sweet and packed with blanched almonds.
When we returned for dinner, our meal was no better -- and much more expensive. Two vegetable-filled samosas were like oil-dipped purses, the pastries leathery and tough and the insides soaked with grease. The bird in a salad of chicken chaat (which means "right away," or "instantly") was as dry as the curry's fish -- a shame, since the salad's flavorings were magnificent: pomegranate seed, cumin and chaat's characteristic black salt, an Indian mineral salt that's really grayish pink and has an intriguing smoky flavor.
Although the saffron in an order of mughlai biryani was just right, the spiced lamb in the savory rice tasted as though it had been dredged in cumin. The green peppers and onions in the prawn pepper masala were so raw that every bite was a crunchy undertaking. I'd bet my booty that the goa fish curry, supposedly swordfish cubes cooked in coconut milk, didn't contain swordfish: The flesh had none of the telltale dark-beige markings and had a totally different texture and stronger flavor than the firm, mildly meaty fish. And while one order of naan, India's tandoori-cooked, lightly leavened flatbread made from white flour, arrived hot and puffy with a nice crust on the outside, two other orders brought doughy, smooshed disks that seemed as though they hadn't been cooked through.
Jewel of India's menu may include meat, but that's not enough to lure me back. For a real taste of India, a meal at Masalaa is the true spice of life.
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