MASALA ART, Needham
When Masala Art opened almost two decades ago, its arrival in Needham was a noteworthy development on Greater Boston’s culinary landscape.
“Indian food has finally arrived in the United States, and Masala Art, in the heart of the Western suburbs, is poised to take advantage of its widening popularity,” then-Globe restaurant critic Alison Arnett wrote. She described Masala Art as “a blockbuster show,” and its food as “very, very good.”
It still is. Even amid the snow and ice of a New England winter, when a 20-minute drive can seem as daunting as intergalactic travel, my wife Carol and I have never regretted a trip to Masala Art. While the restaurant has solidified its presence over the years, it gives no signs of resting on its laurels. Indeed, the current menu boasts nearly two dozen new items.
Although, if I’m being honest, I’d be content with an all-naan menu. It’s a perennial battle to keep from gorging solely on that distinctive flatbread. When we ordered takeout recently, Masala Art’s garlic naan (one of multiple naan options on the menu) proved as satisfying as ever, with a chewy texture and chopped garlic and fresh cilantro on top.
When we turned to another reliable staple, the lightly spiced and tasty mulligatawny soup, it got us musing about how the definition of comfort food really needs to be broadened. Also a candidate for that category as far as we were concerned was the vegetable samosa, a handmade turnover that offered a pleasing combination of exterior crispness — its crust was a bit thicker that the usual samosa crust — and interior softness owing to an abundance of potatoes and peas.
(Whatever the dish, Masala Art doesn’t skimp on the ingredients or the portions; it’s a quantity-meets-quality proposition.)
Next were the entrees. We started with the Gobhi Gulistan, a concoction of grilled fresh cauliflower in a rich, spicy-enough-to-clear-your-sinuses sauce, with a silky texture provided by a blend of mint, yogurt, and cashews, accompanied and nicely complemented by a lightly aromatic basmati rice.
Delicious though the Gobhi Gulistan was, my taste buds needed to downshift to something less dramatic, and I found it in the form of the Malai Kofta. These minced cheese and vegetable croquettes, cooked in a rich, thick, smooth cashew nut sauce, were my favorite part of the meal. I was glad I hadn’t overdone it on the naan.
Finally, we turned our attention to the Tawa lamb chops. Satisfyingly tender, these marinated baby lamb chops were grilled just enough to fully bring out the deep flavors of the meat. This dish is one of the new items on the menu, and it’s a worthy addition.
As for Masala Art itself, while it may no longer be new, it still qualifies as a blockbuster show.
Masala Art, 990 Great Plain Ave., Needham. 781-449-4050, masala-art.com. Soups, salads and appetizers $6-$19, entrees $12-$32.
FLORENCE PIE BAR, Florence
We didn’t get much snow in the Pioneer Valley the weekend of Boston’s bomb cyclone — just enough to provide an excuse for getting takeout from my favorite neighborhood spot, Florence Pie Bar. Not that I really needed an excuse. I frequently walk along the Northampton Bike Path to the Pie Bar to pick up lunch in the ultimate to-go container: the hand-pie. But the hand-pie is, by its nature, food for one, and I wanted to enjoy a meal with my family. So on Sunday I ventured out to get a spread for four to share: two hand-pies, one savory galette, a wedge of quiche, a pint of soup, two chocolate-chip cookies, and three slices of pie.
Waiting in line at the side pick-up window, I saw some familiar faces. Part of the beauty of the Pie Bar is its function as a gathering place — pre-pandemic, a longtime city councilman worked behind the counter slinging slices and talking politics with the regulars. My son’s friend’s mom is a baker there, and I’ve also gotten to know one of the cashiers, an artist and printmaker who once did a whole series on pick-up windows in restaurants.
Anyway, back to the main meal. At home, we spread out the goods and dug in. My husband loves wings, so I gave him the buffalo-chicken hand-pie that came with blue-cheese dipping sauce; the flavors were subtler than he expected, but still tasty.
My 5-year-old daughter and I shared the pumpkin soup, which was creamy with a kick of pepper and bits of chopped, browned onions. She accidentally spilled half of it onto the table, but fortunately our order came with a side of crusty bread that she used to mop it up. The savory galette featured an ensemble cast — carrots, dill, walnuts, and feta, though the carrots stole the show. By the time we tasted the rich scallion and goat cheese quiche and piquant spinach and artichoke hand-pie, we were starting to get full, so we tabled them for dessert.
The brown-butter-chocolate-chip cookies went to my son, 9, who doesn’t like pie (yet). The rest of us split the trifecta of pie slices — piefecta? The fragrant apple crumb made us think of mulling spices and the holidays, while the voluminous chocolate cream served up serious decadence.
But our favorite was the cranberry sour cream with pecans and golden raisins: “really yummy fruits,” as my daughter put it, all bright and sweet under a thick roof of slightly sour icing.
The menu at the Pie Bar changes with the seasons and availability of local ingredients, so check the website or call if you like to plan ahead. Personally, I like the surprise of walking up to the pick-up window and seeing what’s special that day.
Florence Pie Bar, 17 Main St., Florence. 413-341-3283, www.florencepiebar.com, slices of pie, hand-pies, and galettes around $5-$6; whole pies $25 and up.
CHALAWAN ASIAN EATERY, Cambridge
Maybe, you, too, avoid the sushi at a pad thai place, and raise an eyebrow (or two) when you see the phrase “pan-Asian,” worried that a menu spanning an entire region or even continent won’t plant the landing on any one country’s cuisine.
If so, the menu at Chalawan, which boasts dishes from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, China, and Singapore, could prompt you, as it did me, to utter a two-syllable exclamation: “Uh oh!”
Try the food, and your hosanna will be: “More, please!”
The dishes at Chalawan, just south of Porter Square, are loaded with a delightful mélange of spices that offer uniquely delicious flavors. Dinner from Chalawan feels like a special occasion, even as the food is comforting rather than inaccessible.
Take the Sumatra beef cheek rendang. The combination of cinnamon and star anise lift the perfectly cooked cut of meat into a dish that is rich and flavorful, a satisfying celebration on a cold night.
For our most recent Chalawan order, my wife and I paired the beef cheek with the fish curry and stir-fried snapper dishes. With three mains, we hoped to have lots of leftovers. We ended up with very few.
The fish curry manages to strike the perfect balance. It’s creamy and brothy, a winning combination of great spices and just the right amount of heat. The dish offers a delightful variety of textures: soft white fish, firm cooked tomato, and a bit of a crunch in the okra and cauliflower.
The stir-fried snapper is similar to the fish curry in concept — pieces of fish mixed with vegetables in broth — but entirely different in flavor. There’s a slight sweetness to this one and pleasant notes of a floral taste from the watercress and scallion.
All go well with some white rice.
Between bites of shared entrees, I’d recommend trying what Chalawan calls “Asian greens,” a side dish with tofu, beansprouts, Chinese bok choy, and more. This unassuming offering is a wonderful palette cleanser, especially after a spicier dish.
The menu caters to several diets — many gluten free options, all marked, and a robust vegetarian selection. And the price, while perhaps a bit higher than other pan-Asian restaurants, leaves you feeling like you got a great deal after you taste the food.
For appetizers and sides on a recent evening, we paid between $7 and $11. For mains, we paid $23 for stir-fried snapper, $26 for the fish curry, and $32 for the sumptuous, still-thinking-about-it-days-later beef cheek rendang.
Chalawan Asian Eatery, 1790 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-547-8888, thechalawan.com. Appetizers and salads $3.50-$16, entrees $15-$35.
FRANK’S STEAKHOUSE, Cambridge
You come to Frank’s Steakhouse for … well… the steaks ... and the hamburgers ... and the pork chops.
Vegetarians, you can find something to eat here, but it’s not your turf.
Phone in your order and pick it up in the foyer, where you can peruse the photo gallery of famous customers — Ed Asner, Stephen King, Bobby Orr, Robert Parrish, Tip O’Neill (after all it’s the neighborhood of the famous 47th speaker of the US House of Representatives), and Elizabeth Warren, a regular (it’s her neighborhood too — sort of).
Asner came into Frank’s a few years ago when he was doing a one-man show in Arlington, said George Ravanis, co-owner of Frank’s with his brother, Bill Ravanis Jr.
When word got around that night that it was Asner’s birthday, Ravanis said, “everyone in the restaurant sang to him.”
Now for the food, which has only improved in recent years.
Frank’s sizzler steak is sumptuous. It’s spare, nothing fancy in the way of spices or other accoutrements, but it’s tender and tastes simply and utterly delicious. The hamburger is a reliable stalwart, juicy and tasty. And the pork chop, like the steak, is beautifully cooked, plain but bursting with flavor.
A special word about the chicken wings. You won’t mistake Frank’s Hotter Than Hell wings for anyone else’s wings. They come fire-engine red, crusted with red pepper flakes and covered with a distinctive salty-spicy sauce. Hell wings are a favorite in my house.
The sides are fine — french fries and the garden salad are standard fare and do the job. The plain baked potato is solidly reliable.
If slabs of meat aren’t your thing, Frank’s offers a variety of other dishes, but it’s hard to compete with the main attractions. Pasta Bolognese is nice if not terribly interesting. It could easily be spiced up at home, or would be great for someone who prefers mild sauces.
Portions are generous at Frank’s, and the little pillow-shaped dinner rolls that come with entrees are a guilty pleasure. Prices are reasonable.
Frank’s has been in North Cambridge since 1938. When it feels safer to dine indoors again, consider an evening there — it’s an experience, like stepping out of time and into decades past. But for now, for many of us, there is takeout.
“North Cambridge people are so freaking nice,” said Ravanis, whose family has owned the restaurant since 1974. When the pandemic began, “they came in for takeout, not for the food, but for Frank’s, for the staff and my family.”
Frank’s Steakhouse, 2310 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge; 617-661-0666; firstname.lastname@example.org. Appetizers $8-$18, entrees $14 (hamburger) to $69 (3-pound steak).