When owner Atul Bhola opened Masala Art on 4th St., SW in July 2014, my wife and I simply could not stay away. We relished in the complexity of the Murg Makhani, with its thick, tomato-based curry that could turn the plainest of chicken into a delicacy, and the Saag Paneer with melt-in-your-mouth cheese and an extra kick that puts other restaurants’ versions of the same dish to shame. From the beginning, the Laal Maans was another favorite—a lamb curry that is so spicy you’ll cry, but then you take another bite, and another. If we were in a milder mood, the Biryani rice dishes always hit the spot, and the Baingan Bharta served as a good vegetarian option with the fragrance and flavor of eggplant, onion, tomato and cilantro mixed beautifully.
Then, one month after the opening of Masala Art, our daughter was born. Their carry-out option became a staple, but it wasn’t long until we were back in the restaurant for dinner or the weekend brunch buffet, and the rice and raita (yogurt) became some of our daughter’s first foods.
Four years later, Masala Art still provides a classic, authentic, memorable dining experience. The food is consistently fantastic—we have never had a bad experience in many visits over these four years. We have seen servers come and go, including some of our favorites. However, the management has always been on top of their game, with a watchful eye on the tables where there may be a large party or a less experienced server. Our tastes have evolved, but the flavors still provoke awe and wonder. These days, the Tandoori Lamb Chops are a favorite, with a spice and dry rub that does not overpower the succulent meat; as well as the Fish Curry, which never disappoints. The Dum ka Murg is a great choice for Indian food novices, with a saffron aroma that is not too spicy. The Tandoori Chicken is another strong starting point for the spice-averse. The Nalli Nihari also satisfies, which is a lamb shank curry with fall-off-the-bone tenderness and a subtle mix of flavors. The Samosas are top-notch, and the Kafir Lime and Basil Chicken Tikka is a good choice for an appetizer that can be enjoyed by all.
It is not just the friendly service and flavor-packed foods that keep us coming back. The ambiance is thoughtful and artistic, with hand-crafted statues, mellow lighting and soothing background music that is low enough to keep you conversing at your usual decibel level.
In addition, Masala Art has become a community favorite, evoking memories of Southwest meet-up spots of years past, where the neighbors all know each other’s names. There is a daily Happy Hour, and live, talented, local jazz musicians on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. For Southwesters and visitors alike, there is an excellent pre-theater menu that will leave you at just the right level of satiation for your Arena Stage show. The desserts run the gamut of traditional Indian desserts like Gulab Jamun that will scratch that sweet tooth itch, to a simple chocolate ice cream with chocolate chips—perfect for any age.
Masala Art may not be the restaurant the tourists come to Southwest for; it’s the restaurant that your neighbors go to. While it is not a casual dining price point, it is still a more affordable price point than many of the alternatives at the Wharf. Whether you are a first-timer or a regular, you will thoroughly enjoy the unique flavors, ambiance and friendly faces of Masala Art. They got it right in 2014, and have kept it consistent.
By Mike Goodman