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Masala Kitchen, Marlboro, NJ

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There is currently a mini-explosion of new restaurants in Marlboro. The good news: none of them is Italian! The further good news: based on the dinner we had yesterday at Masala Kitchen, this Indian restaurant may actually prove to be a winner -- though it is very early days.

Masala Kitchen, which has been open for two weeks, is located in the space formerly occupied by American Harvest (the failed satellite of the Route 18 food market), on the lower level of the Exclusive Plaza.

Stepping inside the huge space, we were immediately impressed by the interior design. Handsome and elegant, it had very contemporary “New York”-style sophisticated ambiance. Despite the size, the décor imparted some warmth. Lots of brown, a bit of glitz, banquettes and chairs upholstered in a muted fabric, nicely-spaced tables topped with wood, and attractive chandeliers with interesting designs suspended from the very high ceiling. Obviously, the owners have invested some major bucks here. However, as the expression goes, handsome is as handsome does. So, while nice surroundings are certainly welcome, what is always foremost in importance to us is the quality of the cuisine.

We are huge fans of Devi, one of the best, if not *the* best, Indian restaurants in Manhattan. Having seen Masala Kitchen’s menu on-line, we went not expecting cuisine of Devi’s unique style. Masala’s menu is, in fact, similar to those we’ve found in the few NJ restaurants we’ve previously tried. However, what we were hoping for was a high(er) quality of execution.

We had skipped lunch, so we arrived promptly at 5 p.m., when the restaurant opens for dinner. We were the only ones there, not surprising since it's so new and it was a Monday,. A short time later, another table became occupied by three Indian women, a mother and two teenaged daughters, who had a quick meal and left. By the time we were finished, two other tables were occupied, one by an Indian couple. (There is a sizable Indian population in this area.) Several people also came in to pick up take-out.

We were seated at a corner table along a short banquette. As we started to peruse the menu, the lone server on duty brought a basket of pappadam, along with three dipping sauces: mint, tamarind, and onion chutney. The mint was spicy, the tamarind more mellow, and the onion quite sweet due to the use of ketchup as a binding agent. Mr. R. likes spicy, so the mint was his favorite; I like sweet, so I favored the chutney.

Masala Kitchen is a byo, but Mr. R. didn’t bring any wine. There’s a “Mocktail” menu with some very interesting non-alcoholic mixed drinks. Of course, there were mango lassis. We each ordered one (Mr. R. later ordered a second) and some onion kulcha, our favorite Indian bread. After bringing our lassis, which were excellent, the waiter asked if we would like the kulcha to be served at the beginning of the meal or later. When we said we would like it immediately, it didn’t take long for him to return with a basket holding four pieces. They were piping hot and had just the right amount of onions to make for a delicious version. We happily gobbled them up.

Samosas are a ubiquitous appetizer on Indian menus (though there are none at Devi), so we decided to see how Masala Kitchen’s stacked up. We chose the vegetable version commonly stuffed with potatoes and peas. The two large cone-shaped pastries were properly deep-fried with no hint of greasiness, and the tasty filling had just the right amount of “heat,” i.e., not over-the-top but spicy enough to avoid blandness. Accompaniments were a small salad of raw carrot rounds and chopped lettuce, plus a dish of tamarind sauce. The sauce added a pleasant sweeter counterpoint to the samosas’ slight spiciness. While not mind-blowers, these samosas were certainly competently prepared.

For our main course, we chose another ubiquitous dish, Kashmiri Lamb Rogan Josh – cubes of lamb cooked in a thick brown sauce flavored with herbs and spices. The sauce was, indeed, thick, there was plenty of it, and the flavor was good. I’m not a real maven with regard to the herbs and spices in the various curries, but it seemed to me the most assertive flavor in this case was cardamom. As far as the lamb went, there wasn’t a whole lot of it, and the meat was somewhat tough. This was just an o.k. dish.

Rice does not come automatically with main courses; it’s treated here like a separate course. We ordered the Vegetable Pulao, basmati rice cooked with a mélange of vegetables. A very tasty and generous portion, perfectly prepared so that the rice was fluffy and the vegetables retained some crunch.

After finishing the lamb, we decided to order an additional dish, this time something from the tandoor. By doing so, we were testing the chef’s tandoor prowess. The bar for us is very high because this is an area where we have been really spoiled by our experiences at Devi, where Chef Hemant Mathur is a tandoor master. In the past, prior to dining at Devi, when we’ve tried tandoor-cooked items at other Indian restaurants, the food has too often turned out dry and tasteless. However, Chef Hemant’s tandoor-grilled fish, shrimp and, especially, his signature lamb chops, are culinary marvels – always juicy and succulent.

We opted for the Chicken Kasturi Kabob – boneless chicken cubes marinated in mild yellow sauce -- because when we asked what the “yellow” was in the sauce, we were told it was saffron. The wait was fairly long, but we didn’t mind, and it was well worth it when our server finally arrived carrying a sizzling platter filled with chicken chunks and lots of sliced onions. The chunks were flecked with green, which I think was either chopped parsley or cilantro (or maybe both). An intoxicating aroma led to a first bite, and it became immediately apparent that Masala’s chef has excellent tandoor skills because the chicken was supremely juicy. The sautéed onions, which retained some crunch, were the perfect accompaniment. This was a stellar dish! We ate half the very generous portion and doggie bagged the other half.

Full at this point, we passed on dessert.

Our very pleasant waiter kept our water glasses filled, brought fresh plates and cutlery when necessary, and requested our consent before removing plates from the table. Of course, with so few patrons, there was no way of knowing how efficient service would be if the restaurant were full, or how well the kitchen would perform in terms of waits for food. And, for that matter, what how high the noise level might be if the room was packed. The mellow music being played was kept at a low volume.

A note about the awful website. We were told by the restaurant’s host that it is in the process of being redone.

Cost before tax and tip: $45.

Overall, this first meal at Masala Kitchen was very enjoyable. We look forward to returning to try out some other dishes we have our eye on.

Masala Kitchen
Exclusive Plaza, Union Hill Road & Route 9 North
Tel.: 732-851-4500
http://www.masalakitchennj.com
Open every day.
Dinner: 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Lunch: 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. (Lunch special - $9)
Weekend buffet – Fri. – Sun., 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. - $10.95
Delivery Hours: 5 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. (5-mile radius - $20 min - $2 del. Charge)

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  1. What a super review. A real bargain for $45.00!
    We're adding this one to our list. Hill & J

    6 Replies
    1. re: HillJ

      I hope their kitchen works better than their website...

      1. re: HillJ

        I loved your review and have had a fovorite Indian restaurant in Freehold, Aangan. I was very dissappointed with the quality of the food and the mixing of spices - it seemed like the food was prepared in a hurry. Service was simply bad - maybe because it is so new. I will keep going to Aangan even though it is a longer ride - tx to the lower prices of gas.

        1. re: Cliffwh

          I had one of my worst meal/experience here last Sunday. I love Indian food - THIS WAS NOT IT ! Places like these give Indian food a bad name.

          1. re: msfoodlover

            msfoodlover,

            As you can see from my original post, our first experience was good enough to encourage us to go back a second time, which we did. While that second dinner was not quite as good as the first, it was far from horrible. But that was some time ago, and it sounds as though things have badly deteriorated since then. I would be interesting in hearing some details as to what you ordered, and what it was about the food that was so awful. Thanks.

            1. re: RGR

              RGR- I have been there 3-4 times in the last two months, and it has gone downhill a bit. The buffet items on my last visit seemed to be lacking in spiciness and authenticity. It tasted as if the flavors had been toned down since my last visit. In fact, there were two items I did not eat off my plate- I believe they were fried tandori veggies and bbq cheese chunks. I've never seen BBQ written on an Indian buffet. Still, I would go back again and order off the menu. For an Indian buffet, I will travel to East Brunswick next time.

              1. re: njchowgal

                Thanks, njchowgal. Since you have been back several times, it sounds as though you find at least the regular menu more than passable. One of these days, we'll have to get back so I can judge the situation, i.e., downhill or not, for myself.

        1. re: HillJ

          equal-M, the Masala Kitchen website isn't the most stunning viral space but the menu posted does include prices and scrolls easily. I didn't find a delay in opening or reading the site (many over done restaurant sites are too involved for basic browsing). Perhaps if the place does well, they will invest in a nicer site.

          More post specific, J & I had a meal there and didn't find the food as delicious as we had hoped. Seal pretty much said it all for us.

          1. re: HillJ

            I see they fixed it, it's actually pretty impressive now. The first several times I tried to access it it was totally broken. It would just load an intermediate page with no menus, info or directions (Tried it in Firefox, MSE and Safari). I wouldn't add it to my local listing till they fixed it. Might as well get to it now...

        2. RGR - As usual an excellent review. I will definitely add it to my list. Thanks.

          1. Sounds grreat, will try to get there soon. Thanks for the detailed report!!

            3 Replies
            1. re: tom246

              We had lunch there today. We couldn't believe the amount of food one gets for the lunch special price. For $8.95, we received: choice of soup, choice of non-veg entree, choice of veg entree, choice of dal, rice, naan, and dessert of the day. The amount of food was more than adequate. We left full, but not stuffed, and took the rest home.

              I've eaten my share of Indian food in my life. My wife is very picky, but she likes some of it as well. We both agreed this was the best Indian food we've ever had. Very fresh, vibrant, etc. Well-spiced, but not overly spicy or salty. Service was excellent as well. They have a buffet on the weekends for $10.95 that we will be trying soon. The fact that it's so close to our house is a bonus. I hope they do well because it's in an odd location.. kind of like the strip mall that time forgot.

              If you like Indian food, please, go to this place. If you've never had Indian food, please, go to this place, and try it.

              1. re: MarlboroMan

                Maybe I am getting spoiled or jaded or just flat out grumpy in my older age, but ...

                I took my family there tonight. Even though the place was empty except for another family with three todlers/babies, they sat us right next to them and their yelling. Also, and to be fair, it was a hot, humid day today, but the place was very warm - bordering on hot.

                We had two soups, four orders of various breads, shrimp biryani, tandoori shrimp and lamb chops, chicken tikka masala, and cucumber raita. In order, the soups were both decent, the breads all good, the shrimp biryani mixed, as the shrimp were good but the surrounding rice (the main ingredient in a biryani) just ok, the tandoori were again mixed with the lamb chops good, but certainly not anywhere near Devi's, and the shrimp a little mushy, the chicken tikka masala was good and so was the raita.

                So, overall, the food was better than some local options, but not great. At meal's end we were all really hot so my family went outside?! to cool off and I sat, sweating profusely and paid the check. the part that really confuses me is that, even though there were only three tables occupied in the place I sat and waited and dripped with sweat for almost 15 minutes from the time I gave them my credit card until they finally brought the slip for me to sign. I'm still shaking my head in disbelief.

                Overall experience has left me more than wanting. Dare I say it - IDWRGR.

                1. re: seal

                  We went there last Sunday and tried the lunch buffet. Excellent, LOTS of variety. There's a soup, aloo tikki, a few vegetable dishes, a few chicken dishes (tikka masala was one), tandoori chicken, a dessert, and a lot of miscellaneous salad fixin's.. plus a bunch of stuff one doesn't normally see on Indian buffets.. I don't know the names of half the stuff. $10.95 and it comes with naan, fresh and hot from the kitchen.

                  It was so good we had it again this past Sunday. I dunno, it might become a tradition.

            2. My friend catered her party from them and did not have a good experience. They forgot things and were rude.