Devotees of Agent 007, that suave, cinematic spy, may do a double take when they learn that the excellent food at Indian Masala in Newton is the work of chef/owner Jamesbond Paramanandan. The chef says his first name was chosen by the Church of South India priest who baptized him 38 years ago. Whereas 007 was famously licensed to kill, Paramanandan just might be licensed to thrill. One bite of his grilled paratha bread, hand tossed and fluffy, in the style of the southwestern coastal state of Kerala, and he had my full attention.
Indeed, all the breads—more central to an Indian meal and more varied than their American counterparts—are worth trying, including the crackly, peppery, $2 papadum and the $5 Peshwari naan of northern Kashmir, lusciously filled with a paste of ground almonds, cashews, coconut, raisins and dried cherries.
At Indian Masala, the chef says, “I’m cooking my mother’s and grandma’s village dishes. For them, every recipe has its very own masala”—the heady spice mixture toasted and ground daily from scratch. “Nothing premade, canned, jarred or frozen here. We keep busy in this kitchen.”
The passion is evident in the traditional, savory appetizer pastries called samosas. These triangles are amply stuffed with Keema—ground lamb, onion, tomato, and a harmonious masala of cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, garlic and bay leaf. The toothsome vegetable samosa elevated my opinion of peas, carrots and mashed potatoes as bedfellows. Two deep-fried starters—Gobi Manchurian cauliflower and chili chicken—jogged fond memories of Hunanese sweet and sour.
Indian Masala occupies the high-ceilinged parlor floor of a 1920-vintage townhouse on Newton’s lively Spring Street. With just 30 seats and refined service, it feels more like an elegant bistro than a BYO with entrées hovering around $20. Paramanandan earned a degree in culinary arts and hotel management in India and cooked in his home state of Tamil Nadu, on the southeastern coast. Following “my dream to live and cook in the U.S., own my own restaurant, and be a big chef,” he arrived in Boston in 2013 to cook at a vegan restaurant, “where my Indian techniques and spices made the food a lot more interesting.”
After a year, he moved to New Jersey to open Manjal in Ridgewood with two partners, also chefs from Tamil Nadu. Last year, they opened Indian Masala in Newton. Why there? “I grew up on a farm, and I love being around country people,” he says. “And the fresh produce I need, I can buy from the local farmers.”
Lamb entrées proved exceptional. Lamb Chettinad (named for the historic central region of Tamil Nadu) was at once pungent with fresh curry leaves and Indian black pepper, aromatic with fennel, tamarind and cloves, subtly sweet with coconut, and hot with roasted red chilies. The disparate elements played well together. Lamb rogan josh was a complex, compelling stew in fresh tomato paste, yogurt, Kashmiri red chili powder and its own masala spice mix.
For the main course, diners can choose a base of lamb, chicken, shrimp, salmon, vegetables or paneer cheese and pair it with one of more than a dozen sauces. These include peppery Chettinad, mild tikka masala, buttery makhana, creamy korma, and several types of curry, including fiery vindaloo and Thai-influenced green curry.
Fisherman curry, a compelling concatenation, presented succulent hunks of salmon in a deftly calibrated sauce of coconut, tamarind, curry leaves and red chilies. Shrimp mango curry kept its mélange of tropical tastes and textures discernible, yet harmonious.
Chicken tikka masala ennobled a marinated bird with tomato, cream and a masala of seductive seasonings. From the restaurant’s tandoor clay oven, made in India, come appealing chicken, lamb chops, shrimp, salmon and baked paneer cheese.
Though fueled by gas instead of the traditional charcoal or wood (“due to safety regulations,” explains manager Nikhil Shete), the oven produced tender, crisp-skinned chicken, as well as toothsome lamb chops with a velvety char (request them medium rare).
The only entrée not to our entire table’s liking was the house biryani, the classic rice dish, here made in the bracing, chilie-spiced Hyderabad style. Though faultlessly slow-cooked, it lacked the gentle charm of the more commonly served Malabar biryani, gratifyingly endowed with cashews, raisins and cinnamon.
I’ve never lusted after Indian desserts, which tend toward hyper-sweet palate soothers. But Indian Masala’s malai kulfi won me over. It’s a dense ice cream made from boiled-down milk amplified with fragrant cardamom, pistachio, cashew, almond and rosewater.
“Mothers and grandmas all over India make malai kulfi for their families,” says Paramanandan. “It shows how much they love us, because the milk has to be hand stirred.” This dessert was so magical, I myself was stirred.
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- Cuisine Type:Indian
- Price Range:Inexpensive–Moderate
- Price Details:Breads, $2–$6; appetizers, $7–$12; entrées, $16–$25; sides, $4; desserts, $5–$6
- Ambience:Serene café
- Service:Informative and courteous
- Wine list:BYO