dining review

Take a passage to India

By Bill St. John
Denver Post Restaurant Critic

Friday, February 22, 2002 - What a wonderful place this is, brimming with all the tastes, textures and scents of Indian cooking: pungent kari (curry) leaves; milky sweet coconut; the tang of yogurt; cracker-crisp dosa; pliant idly; perfect poori - flavored air.

Waiter Ajay Bhat and some of Masalaa's 120-plus dishes
Do you not recognize some of these names? That's the adventure, for Masalaa is hugely authentic - and 100 percent vegetarian - Indian fare, from the stainless steel water glass at each place to the several chutneys that ring most plates.

Of course, there is good measure of the familiar, but even it rises above the ordinary. Spinach pakoda ($4) - often called pakora - aren't insubstantial here, but arrive hot, chunky and hinting of cumin. (On one visit, they'd been fried too far ahead.) The mint and tamarind chutneys next to a bowl of aloo chaat ($3, flavored boiled potatoes) are more expertly rendered than at most places. The mint whispers, the tamarind is refreshingly tart and the potatoes get a nice one-two from lemon juice and much cilantro.

Even samosa ($4) aren't the leaden triangles found too often. At Masalaa, they're armored in a terrifically crisp skin, and their insides are the lightest of potato mash, shyly studded with vegetables and spiced with a deft hand.

But do try some of the less-familiar Indian dishes. The menu describes, with varying degrees of success, each of the 120-plus dishes the kitchen can prepare.

So many delicious surprises await. Try dahi puri ($4), golf ball-sized globes of friable bread that shatter in the mouth to reveal a refreshing filling of yogurt, mint and a bit of potato. They're covered with minuscule noodles called sev, made of lentil flour and as addictive as Christmas candy.

Or try the mysore bonda ($4), Indian donut holes with a temper. They are large balls of lentil and rice flour pastry, liberally studded with black peppercorns. The mysore bonda are dipped into a sambar (lentil and vegetable soup), itself chock-full of small, hot peppers, or into a coconut chutney, the grace of which is to be coy with the coconut.


Address: 3140 S. Parker Road, Aurora, at Peoria St.

Phone: 303-755-6272

Style: Indian vegetarian

Food: **** (out of four)

Service: *** (out of four)

Atmosphere: ** 1/2 (out of four)

Price: From $1.25-$12.95

Hours: Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30-10:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 2-10:30 p.m.

Credit cards: All majors

Number of visits: 2

Parking: Parking lot

Noise: Quiet, varied music

Wheelchairs: Yes

Smoking: No

Which is more pleasing, to merely look at the beautiful lacework that is the onion rava ($7, semolina pancake), or to feel its elastic texture in the mouth, or to taste its heady oniony flavor or prickles of cumin seed? And what is better about the rasa vada ($4), a lightness that naysays gravity, or the way these wee wreaths are so fragrant of cilantro leaf? There's so much flavor dancing about here that the chutneys that come along and wait in vain to cut in.

Idly are small, flying saucer-shaped Indian rice cakes, constructed of rice that's ground up quite a bit but that remains coarser than flour. The Kanchipuram idly ($4) is blazingly white, studded with peas, carrots and black mustard seeds, then steamed. It would be bland were it not for the spicy chutneys that accompany it, especially a tomato-chile variety that has the heat level just about right.

Another specialty of Masalaa are dosa, enormous crepes of rice and lentil flours, nearly two feet wide, that are rolled up (often over a filling) so that, when presented, they look like a sleeping bag on a plate. One such is masala dosa ($7) and it is terrific: crisply skinned, toothsome, filled with a fragrant and chunky mash of potatoes. Eating it alone is half the fun; dipping it in chutneys and sambar is the other half.

Wait, there's more.

To taste a rice dish that is at once filling and refreshing, order keerai sadam ($6), rice cooked with spinach, cardamom, vegetables and cilantro. The flavoring elements are perfectly balanced against the rice so that neither sticks out. Vegetable korma ($8) could bore, but Masalaa's version could never. The coconut (again) just whispers; the kari leaves kick in on occasion; the vegetables are properly cooked.

One of the more exotic dishes on the menu is poondu kolambu ($8), a kind of Indian ratatouille (with kicker) of tamarind, garlic, kari leaves and many chiles, all spiced with asafetida, a gum resin that imparts a garlic-onion flavor. It's an oily dish and benefits from one of the many breads baked here.

And the breads are charmers. An onion uthapam ($7) is like a puffy pancake of the same batter that makes the dosa. It's warming and richly flavorful, a bite lasting quite a while. You'll think you're spelunking when you bite into the poori ($7), large puffed rounds of bread that are like biting into a crispy cave. And the chappati ($1.75) bring tortilla-like flatbreads made of wheat. They're good, but compared with their breadly brethren, they're yawners.

Masalaa, to be expected, even offers a large range of desserts. If you like sweet, milky things to end your evening meal, try kulfi ($3.50), a kind of semifreddo of milk, ground almonds and pistachios. Or badam halwa ($3.50), ground almonds and pistachios again, but this time flavored with butter and sugar (and it is sweet).

Less accessible for a Westerner are gajjar halwa ($3.50), minced carrots, butter and saffron; and rava kesari ($3.50), a pink-colored, cold Cream of Wheat-like dessert of sweetened semolina and milk.

Bill St. John is the Denver Post restaurant critic. You may reach him at 303-820-1958 or bstjohn@denverpost.com.
delicious stuff 2/23/2002 00:31 AM  
Masalaa has some of the best Indian food in town. I personally recommend the channa bhatura and the masala dosa. Also, try the mango lassi to balance the spicy flavors with this sweet, almost heavenly drink. Taste it for yourself and you'll find out what Bill St. John is talking about! It's about time this restaurant got a review in the Post.
Authentic food at Masalaa 2/22/2002 4:19 PM  
Archana & Rohit
We both enjoy tasty & authentic South Indian food at Masalaa & feel that it is the best in Denver. We extend our best wishes to Masalaa team.
Masalaa restaurant 2/22/2002 3:31 PM  
thank you for your review about my restaurant to make the familier resturant.i appreciate that.