Culinary Harmony — Masala Indian & Mediterranean Cuisine

Masala Indian & Mediterranean Cuisine

Nothing like a quick personal holiday away and then returning with an appetite. Food on airplanes do nothing but keep me slightly appeased and I should not complain too much because I will be on another plane towards the end of the week flying away for a another stretch of time. In the meantime, I made it a point to compensate for the lack of tasty morsels while sitting cramped in the economy section for my long flight.

A friend had mentioned an Indian and Thai restaurant in the Uptown neighbourhood, not far from where he lives. Midway through the conversation he said that the restaurant is now Indian and Mediterranean. I understood how Indian and Thai could tie cuisines together — by way of the curry dishes. However, a growling belly leaves very little margin for me to sit around and ponder food for too long. So, I was off to Masala Indian & Mediterranean Cuisine at 1002 W. Argyle Street.

Masala Indian & Mediterranean Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

Initially, I was going to have entrées only, but something told me to satisfy my appetite completely. I started with a samosa. After having added some tamarind chutney and cilantro chutney, I was tempted to order about six for take-away after the first bite. Lately I have had baked samosas and the pastry was not flaky. The crust to the samosa at Masala Indian & Mediterranean Cuisine was a dream. As to the entrées, I had ordered chicken makhani and palak paneer and requested that they were prepared to be spicy. The chicken makhani was outstanding. I was surprised that the palak paneer was more like paneer bhurji with spinach rather than like saag paneer, which made that entrée that more indulgent.

I didn’t see poori on the menu and had mentioned poori rather passively while ordering. What made me an instant fan of Masala was the server returning to the table and saying that the chef could prepare poori. As thankful as I was, I was not expecting that kind of accommodation. On a scale of 1 to 10, it made the whole experience a 25. So, I used the poori to scoop a good bit of the food and a fork, of course, later the course.

Still being diligent about keeping my sugar intake low, I had kheer and masala chai. Topped with crushed pistachios, the kheer was super. I could have had more than just the bowl of it, but I was already too full. However, I could order quite a bit of it for take-away and enjoy for breakfast, as well as throughout the day and after dinner. The mark of a good chai is the skin that floats atop once it’s brought to the table. That is the indication that you’re not getting chai from a carton that has been heated. The kheer and masala chai were a perfect finale to a fantastic lunch.

Masala Indian & Mediterranean Cuisine does indeed have a Mediterranean menu. The restaurant opened its doors only a few months and the husband and wife team have added a welcomed addition to Uptown. I did not get to sample any of the Mediterranean fare since I did not want to mix cuisines. But being able to say that the Indian portion of the menu is worthy of repeat visits, I shall certainly return one day with a taste for some Mediterranean options. Masala Indian & Mediterranean Cuisine aced three things I always seek when going to restaurants — delicious food, first-rate service, and reasonable prices. Restaurants like this make it hard for me to not be in love with eating constantly.

Masala Indian & Thai Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Ali Baba and Gino at Baba’s Village

Baba's Village

When you have gone to India and eaten at any restaurant, home, or down some alley, the standard for preparation of Indian food is pretty much ingrained. You might not know the exact amount of herbs and spices that each dish should have, but you know when the food is so good that talking to someone while you are eating is the last thing you want to do. And when you hear people say that cab drivers frequent a certain Indian eatery, you think authenticity. You get slightly hyper, ready to gnash away at something spicy, hungry like the wolf.

Hmm.

Samosa

Samosa

Last year my colleagues took me to a nearby Indian hole-in-the-wall at 310A S. Canal Street named Baba’s Village. As far as quick goes, it fits the bill. At the time, there was a constant ebb and tide of suits, ties, and wanderers off some Amtrak train from the neighbouring Union Station. It looked like it had all the trappings of the Indian spots that have endeared themselves to my appetite. And without extra charge, you got a bit of attitude with your order. I never bothered to return because the personnel atmosphere had ruined the meal, which was so Americanized that it was practically American food being passed off as Indian food.

I returned recently after work when there was no crowd and noticed a change. Granted the Indian guy at the cash registered barely looked at me while I was placing my order, that changed with a little bit of Hindi that I let sprang forth. I have a habit of unconsciously letting people know that I’m not as typical as I look. So, he was rather engaging thereafter, and it may have been the few short sentences of Hindi that resulted in my food being – and I must apologize for the blatant continuation of my sentence – so DAMN DELICIOUS.

Chana Bhatura

Chana Bhatura

Veggie samosa. Chana bhatura.

The samosa was spicy and almost the size of a fist. Considering my hands are extra large, I will say that the samosa was about the size of a large fist. It came hot and flaky, not cold or lukewarm and chewy. That was a big change from what I remember during the lunch order I had last year, in which the samosa had the texture of toast. Where there was indeed a HUGE improvement was with the chana bhatura. I am a fan of choley and bhatura. The bhatura was certainly not a let-down. The chana was still very much like seasoned chickpeas in a spicy stew gravy, but there was flavour this time. I have no idea what the concoction was that I had last year, but its bland-as-a-rice-cake flavour then was nothing like the pop that I had during this recent visit. I actually finished everything and when I say everything I mean I took the last pieces of bhatura and went around the bowl to sop the last bit of gravy.

It may have been my appetite. It may have been that the cook had more time to prepare dishes without the rush of the lunch crowd. Whatever it was, this most recent visit was an indication that Baba’s Village may be worth avoiding during noon and waiting until after 5:00 PM when everyone is rushing home or to some watering hole to turn up some beers. The prices aren’t all that expensive. I can’t speak to any dishes other than the chana bhatura and the sampling of some “You call that tender?” butter chicken that a fellow colleague had last year. I wouldn’t be surprised if the butter chicken doesn’t have a wow factor after 5:00 PM. I can’t say. But maybe during your visit, you can let me know thereafter.

Baba's village on Urbanspoon

Pan-Asian Sampling Delight

Simply Thalia

When weekends arrive in Chicago, I tend to smile a little wider. I can sleep later in the mornings. I get a reprieve from hand-holding fellow colleagues at work. And I can eat until my heart is content, my belly is filled, and I can take a nap without anyone running into my space and disrupting it. Saturday morning arrives, it is sunny outside, I am on my way to some eatery, and then there is this thing called cloud coverage — always followed by cloud bursts of torrential downpours — that messes up the merry work for any outdoor activity. This has been a weekend phenomenon almost wears me down to spiritual defeat. But my appetite remains in tact, though.

After work a few days ago, I went by a Pan-Asian eatery that is in the concourse between the Red Line at Lake Street and the Blue Line at Washington Street. In the lower level of the new mall at 108 N. State Street is Simply Thalia, which is simply an Asian cafe of all good things. When I had gone the other day, my appetite was way off the scale because I had recently increased my workout routine and I had a hankering that was driving me sideways the wall. Having gone to the restaurant several months past and had a panang dish, I was not necessarily thrilled with the diligence done to their Thai curry dishes — more watery than hearty — but I was hungry and there are other items on their bill of fare. Today I wanted to try a different approach and I had decided that I would keep with my Snacking on Saturday [convenient] tradition. I was only going to have appetizers and, by George, I was going to like it. That was me psyching myself up for the edibles.

Saigon Shrimp Rolls

Saigon Shrimp Rolls

There was very little convincing that I had to do. Focusing on the appetizers, which were priced very low, I eyed three items that I wanted to delight myself with. I started with Saigon shrimp rolls. Who would have thought that rice paper rolled with shrimp, cucumber, carrots, lettuce, cilantro, bean sprouts, rice noodles, and mint could be so blooming satisfying? The Vietnamese apparently figured it out and the shrimp rolls that I feasted myself on with the complementary dipping sauce, consisting of a plum sauce and a hint of teriyaki sauce, really made an impression on me. This was the first time I have had Saigon shrimp rolls and loved them. My hat goes off the chef, cook, or frozen food merchant who dealt me this treat.

The next appetizer I had was Burmese samosa. Flaky to perfection and stuffed with sweet curried potatoes and spiced chicken, my mouth burst with flavours of Burma. One ethnicity lacking in the Chicago multi-cultural restaurant spectrum is Burmese. Albeit a small items on the larger menu, I was reminded of the fine eating experiences in many Burmese restaurants in Toronto, Ontario, and in Washington, DC. Served with a sweet mustard accented with a hint of cilantro, I know now that it is time for me to visit old friends in Toronto and in DC — to catch up with my friends, of course — for some loving from the kitchen courtesy some Burmese.

Burmese Samosas

Burmese Samosas

The final appetizer was Malaysian roti canai. Malaysian home-made naan served up with curry chicken dipping sauce was an absolute taste of heaven. It is quite evident that Simply Thalia does not concoct thick curry gravies, a case with the thin base for the curry chicken sauce. However, this curry was only thin, not watery, and it worked very well with the roti. I could eat the Malaysian roti canai everyday for the rest of my life and never grow tired of it. Hmm. Wait. I have a threshold and everyday would be too much; I would not want to risk tiring myself of such a dish full of love. But I found the roti alone to be a welcome to the palate and the curry sauce made it that more appetizing.

I cannot place Simply Thalia in any one ethnic bucket as there are many Asian cultures represented in the food — Japanese, Chinese, Malaysian, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, and Indian just to name a few. What I will add is that for there to be a plethora of Asian cultures present in the food at any one restaurant, there is a splendid job done keeping each ethnic dish specific to the culture which it represents, rather than introducing fusion and competing flavours.

Malaysian Roti Canai

Malaysian Roti Canai

For the three appetizers and some organic tea, the tab for my moment of food bliss was under $20. Small and rather close, Simply Thalia has a feel of a lounge — minus super tan blond Rachels in high heels and mini skirts and Oompa Loompa orange Barts in clothes way too tight. Granted servers do not perform acrobats to please your sensibilities, I was appreciative of the fact that when I had said I wanted each appetizer one at a time and spaced out between delivery, the individual who took my order honoured my request. So my three factors that keep me returning were there: great service, low price, and outstanding food. What am I going to do when I increase my workout routine again? That was a rhetorical question.

Also, Simply Thalia has a parent restaurant named Thalia Spice, which is at 833 W. Chicago Avenue. I am almost certain that the food is worthy of a visit. And even if you still want a sample of their tasty menu items, you can order online from your desktop or from your smart phone. I think I am outside of the delivery area, but I will go and have a seat at one of the tables and see what delight I can derive from some Pan-Asian sampling.

Simply Thalia on Urbanspoon