Restaurant Review: Masalawala & Sons, Where the Food Is Bengali and the Mustard Oil Flows
Early one night at the new Brooklyn restaurant Masalawala & Sons, a server tells me that a customer recently asked about getting a mild version of some dish or other. He says he told the customer no, this restaurant is owned by the Unapologetic Foods group, and one thing that name means is that spice levels are nonnegotiable. “Every dish is as spicy as it needs to be,” he says.
These guys — Chintan Pandya, the chef of Unapologetic Foods, and his partner, Roni Mazumdar — sure do stay on brand. And they deliver on the brand’s promise. In the other Unapologetic restaurants, particularly at Adda Indian Canteen in Queens and Dhamaka in Manhattan, the seasonings can be rough and slashing in a way that excites me and apparently many other New Yorkers.
So I am prepared for hot peppers at Masalawala & Sons, where the menu is almost entirely Bengali. I have a handkerchief ready in case my eyes water at the sharp flick of fresh red chiles. I am braced for the lingering body blow of dried red ones. As for fresh green chiles, their effects are harder to predict, especially in the presence of the other two, but I will stay alert.
And then the spice comes for me from a direction I wasn’t expecting. I tear off a piece of yeasty, white pao and pile on top of it a spoonful of keema kaleji — ground goat and its liver cooked with cloves and black cardamom. I raise it to my lips. But the sensation I feel is not a burning or buzzing in my mouth. It is a low, steady, stinging feeling, and it’s located behind my face, just under my eyes, which are watering as my mind empties of thoughts.
I have mustard oil inside my head. The keema kaleji is cooked in it, and I let it in just by breathing.
The volatile, sinus-awakening aroma of mustard oil is one of the signatures of Bengali cooking. A few drops will put a mean backspin on pickled mango. A whole panful will make an ideal medium for frying and, paradoxically, deliver a gentler kick, but a kick nonetheless. Many Bengali dishes are unthinkable without it.
Undiluted mustard oil, though, contains high levels of erucic acid. The Food and Drug Administration is not so sure that consuming erucic acid is safe, based on studies that link it to lipid buildup in the hearts of lab animals, so it will not approve the sale of pure mustard oil for cooking. For many years the oil was almost impossible to buy in the United States. I knew a family originally from Kolkata, otherwise law-abiding citizens, who used to defy customs agents and their K-9 agents by hiding cans of mustard oil in their suitcases after trips back home.
The mustard oil flows freely at Masalawala & Sons, not to mention mustard seeds, whole and ground.
What now ranks among the greatest plates of fried fish in the city, the biyebarir fish fry, is modeled after the fish that appears in great quantities at wedding dinners in Kolkata. At Masalawala, barramundi fillets rubbed with a green pulp of cilantro and fresh chiles are suspended inside a puffy, golden husk of batter. This comes with a small dish of kasundi, a condiment that starts with freshly ground mustard. American yellow mustard has the same relationship to kasundi that a butter knife has to a chain saw.
Mr. Pandya says he drew the recipes for Masalawala & Sons from conversations with Mr. Mazumdar’s father, Satyen, who was born and raised in West Bengal. As at Adda and especially Dhamaka, the kitchen’s sources are rustic and homespun dishes from Indian villages more often than the polished metropolitan cooking of the cities.
A lot of things are served in clay or stainless-steel dishes. Others arrive right in their cooking pots. Mr. Pandya uses this to striking effect with his kosha mangsho, a lamb stew as dark as squid ink. It arrives stuck to the bottom of the pan, as if it had burned, but it’s merely been sizzled in its own fat, like a confit. The sauce is nearly dry, the meat is crisp at the edges, and the whole thing is wildly good. Is that mustard oil I taste? It is.
Vegetables rarely seem to interest Mr. Pandya. The only Unapologetic restaurant that really pays attention to them is Semma, where the menu is in the hands of Vijay Kumar. Following the pattern, Masalawala & Sons ignores vast swaths of the Bengali vegetable repertory, but this time we do get two or three great vegetarian dishes.
Dahi vada is a little street snack, a tender lentil fritter soaked in yogurt like a spongecake, and then topped with a couple of chutneys and spices. It’s soothing but not boring — a soft-spoken opening to a meal that will almost certainly have some loud flavors. Echorer kalia is jackfruit in a complexly aromatic gravy. Khichuri, served in its clay cooking pot, is a warming lentil stew with rice and cauliflower and some other vegetables swimming below the surface. Dinner at Masalawala could start and end with khichuri if there weren’t so many other things to try.
Prawns cooked with their heads, sealed inside a green coconut? Pao spread with melted bone marrow swirled with ghee that is brick-red with pulverized chiles? You’ll do fine as long as long as you don’t order all the fish-in-mustard dishes on the same night.
If you do, or should the chiles get to you, help is at hand. The bartender, Luccia Corichi, makes rose milk from housemade rose syrup, and it tames Indian spices as effectively as cold horchata does a chile de árbol salsa. For dessert, there is bhapa doi, a Bengali magic trick by which sweetened yogurt and milk are changed into pudding without the aid of eggs, gelatin or anything else. It is as simple and restorative as it sounds.
Unapologetic Foods, which built one impressive, eye-opening restaurant after another over the past five years while changing the way New Yorkers think about Indian food, has been a bright spot in the city’s dining scene. One of the group’s smartest moves has been to promote the Unapologetic brand above all, rather than painting Mr. Pandya as a great and visionary chef. (He is one, but that’s not the narrative he and Mr. Mazumdar have pushed.) People who see chef worship as problematic still respond to brands. Inventing and maintaining a brand identity is almost like an art form now, and Unapologetic Foods has been very adept at it.
Most young restaurant groups start to get fancier after the first two or three places. (Some do it after one.) Unapologetic Foods seems committed to running on a shoestring, though. Masalawala & Sons is a small space in a decent but not especially charming stretch of Park Slope; the interior design shows what a resourceful architect can do with shelving, paint and chains of paper marigolds. The indie tactics allow the company to expand quickly, and let the kitchen take risks that would be hard to stomach if more money were at stake. If there was no audience for Bengali wedding fish on Fifth Avenue, Mr. Mazumdar and Mr. Pandya could probably have recycled the space in a couple of weeks.
For restaurateurs, the usual route to respect includes spending and charging more money than the average joint. What makes these two so interesting isn’t just that they’ve rejected that. They’ve realized they can be respected for rough-hewed, unreformed cooking of the sort that Indian restaurants in the United States used to avoid. They’re being taken seriously for interpreting their own culture, not imitating somebody else’s.