Thursday, October 18, 2007

Masala Indian Restaurant

"Playwrights are like men who have been dining for a month in an Indian restaurant. After eating curry night after night, they deny the existence of asparagus." Peter Ustinov
This quote works for me on two levels.

First, we just visited Masala, the new Indian restaurant in Vinohrady.

Second, I like Indian food, but I don't really have a deep understanding, and I don't really understand what the quote means.

So, it makes a lot of sense.

Masala is just a few minutes walk from the top of Wenceslas Square. It is in a small space below street level.
There is no smoking in the restaurant's dining room. But smoking is allowed in the small bar area in the next room. There was no beer on tap.

There was Pilsner Urquell for 35 CZK and Gambrinus for 26 CZK in half-liter bottles, several wine choices, and even a double vodka lassi for 90 CZK.The decorations on the wall were on the kitschy side. There were a few Indian prints and decorations, but many others don't really have anything to with India.

I believe they were left over from the Balkan restaurant that previously occupied the space.
With the straw hats hanging there, it looked more like Mississippi Masala.

There were only seven tables in the restaurant, and more than half of them had "reserved" signs on them. Lucky we got there early.

The instant popularity of Masala is a tribute to the charm and cyber-marketing skills of the Indian owner, Bobby Jain.

Before officially opening, he started a lengthy, friendly, and humorous discussion on the Expats.cz Food & Drink board to solicit advice. He got plenty of it. There are a lot of expat experts on curry out there.

So, he's gotten plenty of friendly "advisers" coming in to satisfy their hunger and curiosity. He also invited a number of them for special tastings to get feedback.

But Bobby's charms are not just virtual. He often stops by tables to have real chats with customers, crack jokes and ask what they liked and what they didn't.

The meal started with a couple of complimentary papadoms and some pickled onions. The popadoms come rolled up rather than flat, which can get a little crumbly when you bite into them.

V loved the onions. Perhaps they won't be to everyone's taste, but there was something addictive about them. We ate them all.

We also received an herbal drink that's supposed to get the taste buds working. Many people on the Internet said they didn't like it.

I didn't love it but, expecting the worst, it was better than I thought it would be. V didn't like it, but I just thought of it as a broth and finished it.

We shared two starters.

We had two veggie samosas for 45 CZK. I thought they were quite good -- with a good, flaky crust surrounding the filling. I'd never had them with peanuts in them before. I liked them.It also seemed that they were different, with one that had more potato, and the other seeming to have more peas. The Masala menu says they have dried fruit, but I didn't notice much. They came with a tamarind sauce for dipping.

We also shared the vegetable pakora for 60 CZK. These were OK, but definitely on the greasy side. Our favorite was the eggplant (aubergine). It came with an Indian sweet and sour sauce, not the usual bottled type.I think I scored the winning dish of the main courses. I got the Chicken Fenugreek for 165 CZK. Fenugreek is a plant and seed used in seasoning and is also known as "Greek hay."

Tandoori chicken was covered with a very thick tomato and onion sauce. The onions had been cooked to the point where they basically melted, but still thickened the mixture.

It reminded me of a good, Italian red sauce until you taste the spices. Still, it was not spicy at all . I was not asked how hot I wanted it, and it came mild. I didn't mind.The menu said there is coriander in the dish. Although the menu didn't say so, V thought she detected the strong flavor of whole cumin. The addition of small ginger slices was a nice touch.

Anyway, we thought the result was delicious. I'd get it again.

V ordered the Lamb Korma for 180 CZK. The menu describes it like this: "Mild lamb curry, firstly marinated in youghurt then sauteed with sliced onions, tomatoes and fenugreek finished in a lightly spiced coconut sauce."Honestly, it was hard to detect much of the marination and flavors from the preparation of the meat. Under the sauce, the taste of the lamb, itself, dominated.

It was not the finest cut of lamb, but it had been cooked into a tender state. There was just a light amount of coconut in the sauce. Compared with the other main course we had, it seemed very bland.

We got two orders of white rice at 30 CZK each. One serving was a lot of rice. Next time, we'll share one order. And there will be a next time.On another night, some friends went to Masala, and I dropped by to join them after work.

My friend, The Englishman, ordered the Chicken Tikka Masala for 149 CZK. The menu called it "tender morsels of boneless chicken, smoked over charcoal then finished in a classical rich tomato onion and coriander sauce."
I thought it was similar to the Chicken Fenugreek, but with a stronger flavor of onions. Perhaps some other subtleties were lost on me, but I liked it.

Since I got there late, I can only show you the remnants of the Lamb Saagwala, which goes for 180 CZK.

It was ordered medium hot. I had a taste and thought it was nicely spicy. It is made with pureed spinach and fenugreek in the sauce.

I liked the lamb in this dish better than the Lamb Korma from the earlier visit.

I also had a small taste of what was left of some Butter Chicken. That dish goes for 119 CZK.

I thought it was a bit boring (it was ordered mild), and my colleague who ordered it didn't like it so much.

She also decided to have dessert and got the homemade mango ice cream for 45 CZK. This was the loser of the night.

Maybe I don't know much about Indian ice cream, but this stuff showed classic signs of defrosting and re-freezing. It was full of ice crystals. No smoothness. We both tasted it and agreed the flavor of mango was pretty weak. My colleague didn't finish it.

There are plenty of other dishes I want to try. A number of tandoori appetizers are on the list, along with all the king prawn dishes, mint chicken salad, and lentil soup that someone on the Internet highly recommended.

Speaking of which, the rave reviews of the afore mentioned expats experts have rolled in. Since I'd say they know more than me about Indian food, and I love quotes, I'll share a few:
  • "It was certainly the best Indian food I have had in Prague." - Ledni Tonda
  • "The food was very good, though the Tika Masala wasn't quite as flavorsome as others I have had in Prague." - JAM70
  • "1) the tandoori appetizers (two kinds of chicken and prawns) were absolutely brilliant. I couldn't believe that wasn't the main course! 2) the black lentil soup was the best soup I've ever had in my life. I want a bucket of that next time!" - Praguelodyte
  • "Lovely place and one I will certainly be going back to a lot. The only problem I foresee is over-popularity and not enough room to accommodate everyone." - Roving Anglican
  • "Went there last night.. food was yummy and prices fine.. very nice and homey atmosphere ." - dolphingirl
  • "The samosas were as good as any I've had outside of India, very good. The masala tea was REAL. The mushroom shaslik was the star of the show, I could have eaten a bucket full." - nomadness
  • "All in all a great little place with great food and great service. While it wasn't the 'absolute best' indian food i've had in Prague, it was damn near close to it. I think it could be a winner in the near future." - coco
  • "This is just what Praha needs - reasonably priced curry" - morpheus
Except for one flat-out bad mini-review, this internet lovefest goes on and on and on.

But this last point by morpheus, among others, is worth repeating. The prices are excellent. Masala also has nicely-priced lunch specials.

It doesn't get much cheaper for a real sit-down Indian dinner in Prague. The feeling of value for money is a key factor in deciding on a return visit.

Of course, you can eat Indian for a whole lot more.

We used to eat fairly often at Taj Mahal, back in the day. It is not far away.

But with many main courses there hitting the 300-400 CZK range without rice, we just stopped going. We lost our appetite for spending 1500 CZK for an Indian dinner for two.

I'll go a little against the Internet flow and say Masala is far from perfect. It didn't knock my socks off.

But the restaurant does have that winning combination of price, location, decent atmosphere, and a few curry dishes I'd go back for.

Check back with me later on the existence of asparagus.

Masala Indian Restaurant
Mánesova 13
Prague 2

Tel. (+420) 222 251 601
(+420) 722 907 666 (English)

8 comments:

farfalla said...

The quote you have chosen fits perfectly to the Indian quisine. As playwrights prefer huge strong emotions that can be seen from the last row of the theatre, the Indian cuisine uses strong curry flavour which is easily recognizable.

I, personally, prefer tender tastes of Italian and French meals, e.g. asparagus. But having read your note on Masala, I may give the Indian cuisine another try.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry that you were exposed to what seems like the "UK Standard Indian Curry house" fare. The food that you were served at this restaurant in the Czech is not India food at all and is not what most indians across the subcontinent would eat either on special occasions or on a daily basis.

This sort of cuisine derives its existence thanks to the early balti houses in the UK, the english palate and immigrant Bangladeshi chefs..... PLEASE DO NOT THINK IT IS INDIAN! Infact there is no Indian cuisine as there is no European cuisine. Each State/ region has its own cuisine like in Europe; Italian, French, Spanish, Greek etc etc.

For a fun account of the history of the Indian food read: Rohan Candappa's "Picklehead" which explains the British Standard Curry House fare phenomenon which is now seen to be Indian.

I get upset that this sort of food, where the meat is tough and is masked by generic sauces (which in turn are subtley modified by adding or subtracting spices, ketchup and cream) is called Indian cuisine.

If you were here, then I would invite you around for an authentic Indian culinary experience.

Anonymous said...

Hi

Great blog and great reviews.

I've tried a lot of Asian restaurants in Prague before, and one of the best ones I liked was Hallalfastfood:

http://www.firmy.cz/detail/616322-hallal-fast-food-praha-nove-mesto.html

The quality of food was excellent and prices were very good at the time I went!

So it's one to try out!

Also I heard about Mailsy, is that any good?

Anonymous said...

just add this to the above link to make it work:

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Brewsta said...

Don't know about Mailsy. Been to Hallal many times. Usually had chicken tikka masala. It was OK, but can't say it was anything too special.

Anonymous said...

Since moving to Prague, I've been reading your blog and really appreciate all you have to say. I've never been moved to comment until now...please try Mailsi! It is a Pakistani restaurant in Zizkov. The owner is usually there providing friendly service and the food is quite good. I look forward to a future review of it...keep up the blogging!

Brewsta said...

Thanks! Restaurant selection here is less a scientific process and more a whimsical one. I'll file it in my head -- can't promise.

Anonymous said...

Hey guys, whatever u make up ur for Indian food based on this restaurant is not justified. These ppl are not indians to prepare authentic indian food. Thats it.