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Tom Sietsema

At long last, I have a good answer for theatergoers hoping to catch dinner near Arena Stage on the Southwest Waterfront. It’s called Masala Art and it’s a spinoff of the Indian restaurant of the same name in Tenleytown.

Owner Atul Bhola says he was drawn to Southwest D.C. partly because of the area’s “good vibe” but also because he has a client base there. Turns out, a lot of his regulars at the original Masala Art had been trekking across town for meals.

Since mid-July, when the second restaurant made its debut, loyalists have had rich reasons to dine closer to home. One is chicken tikka, its moist nuggets elevated with basil and lime leaves. Another is a south Indian fish curry that gathers chunks of cobia in a turmeric-tinted coconut milk gravy. (The dark purple rind in the bowl is kokum, a fruit that imparts a pleasant sweet-sour note.) Tender baby eggplant draped in a thick cloak of pureed peanuts, sesame seeds and tamarind makes for a meaty vegetarian meal.

The looker on the menu is a staple of Indian restaurant scripts, bhel puri. The colorful jumble of puffed rice, diced mango, crushed peanuts and chopped onion is heaped in an edible bowl shaped from lentil wafers. Tamarind chutney acts as a sweet binder; chopped jalapeños set the salad on fire.

Chef Ajay Ramola, a native of New Delhi, can go from mild to wild, as evinced by his delicate walnut-stuffed goat cheese dumplings and laal maans, a stinging lamb curry. A veteran of his employer’s first restaurant, Ramola repeats only a few dishes in the new venue. This diner is happy to find among the carry-overs a bright and creamy saag paneer.
Masala Art
The light-filled corner dining room is dressed with souvenirs Bhola picked up on a trip to India last summer: a carved wooden screen to separate bar from banquettes, brass figurines of women preparing food, and stacked metal lunchboxes.

Bottom line: Patrons of the arts shouldn’t be the only ones applauding a fresh performance in the neighborhood.

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