It’s always risky for restaurateurs to venture beyond their established ethnic boxes. When Danny Meyer and Floyd Cardoz launched their fusion effort, Tabla, Indian food lovers complained that its menu wasn’t Indian enough. Simultaneously, some fans of Meyer’s landmark Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern were alienated by Tabla’s South Asian palate. While Westchester’s newest Indian restaurant, Irvington’s Chutney Masala Indian Bistro, is not aiming for Tabla’s heights, it does face some of the same challenges. With a menu that deviates from corner Indian restaurant standards, Chutney Masala might have to fight for an understanding market.
Chutney Masala’s location is certainly a good start. Housed in the cute building recently vacated by Flirt Sushi, Chutney Masala benefits from the revival of Irvington’s waterfront, sharing synergy—and foot traffic—with popular destinations like Red Hat on the River and Restaurant One. Steps from Irvington’s train station, Chutney Masala’s freestanding, red brick building still bears its original hoists; it’s purported to have housed a 19th-century lumber dealer. Sadly, though the building sits amidst Irvington’s vast riverside Metro-North parking lot; only a few tables offer glimpses of the river. In fine weather, outdoor dining (essentially in the parking lot) offers better views.
Chutney Masala’s intimate, 100- seat, two-level interior features exposed brick and ductwork. The sleek former industrial space is rendered cozy with jewel-green banquettes and soft embroidered bolsters, though some diners might object to backless ottomans serving as seats. (If a well-supported spine is a necessity, diners should request a table with chairs.) Chutney Masala’s walls are decorated with fascinating black-and-white photos documenting the Raj (the period of British occupation) by 19th-century photographer Raja Deen Dayal. The images set the perfect tone for Chutney Masala—a place where two cultures merge.
Unlike corner Indian restaurants, Chutney Masala offers a compelling list of signature cocktails, which introduce a theme in Chef Navjot Arora’s cooking: the palate-refreshing effects of acid. Our delicious cucumber coolata (made with lime, cucumber, cilantro, mint, and tonic water, muddled together and enlivened with gin) mimicked the tartness of a gimlet or a best-case Margarita, but without the cloying sugar. Plus, the Raj-evoking notes of gin, quinine, and cucumber were haunting and delightfully on-message.
Appetizer samplers (offered for two, but better for four) make a good start at Chutney Masala; they’re available in both vegetarian and carnivorous assortments. To start, we loved the warm and juicy paneer (homemade cheese) tea sandwiches, which were marinated, grilled, and filled with savory raisin chutney. Also hits were crisp-fried fillets of gram-flour-dusted, deep-fried tilapia; and fiery, perfectly cooked grilled jumbo shrimps, which had been marinated in yogurt and dredged in tangy pomegranate powder. Above all, our favorite was an under-the-radar tomato and tamarind soup, whose luscious tangy, sour, and spicy notes struck the perfect, appetite-whetting balance. In fact, my mouth waters at the recollection.
Chef Arora’s hand-ground spices and free use of tart citrus and sour tamarind make a welcome change from dull anglicized Indian food. His use of chili usually is tempered with bright acids, which elevates his dishes above common fare. Some of his best dishes feel like a surprise, such as the addictive side salad of sprouted mung beans, dressed in mango-cumin vinaigrette and served alongside appetizer platters, or a soulful, pork-and-beans-like vegetarian dal makhani (black lentils with kidney beans and clarified butter), offered in the sampler-like thali. Often an Indian restaurant throwaway, Arora’s dals are worth a visit on their own. We also loved his dal tadka—creamy, perfumed yellow lentils stewed with cumin and garlic.
Hot, charred tandoori breads make the perfect dippers for dal, and Chutney Masala’s are no disappointment. We’re fans of the buttery-with-ghee onion-and- garlic kulchas, and the savory, mint-stuffed pudina paratha. Only a run-of-the-mill poori struck us as pandering: it felt aimed at unadventurous diners. Similarly, an inoffensive—but dull—version of chicken tikka masala (murgh tikka makhanwala) left us feeling Chef Arora’s heart wasn’t behind the dish. Diners hoping for great versions of everyday Indian take-out dishes should probably head elsewhere.
Fusion dishes, like the not-occurring-in-South-Asia Maine lobster with limejuice, turmeric, and curry leaf/yogurt sauce, were clear winners over standards. Clean, buttery and savoring strongly of tamed ginger, this showcase for fresh, perfectly cooked lobster is a dish we’ll crave again and again. Also good was free-range lamb in a rich, green-flecked cilantro and mint korma, flavors that were echoed in a tasty lunch dosa. This griddle-crisped, rice flour and lentil crêpe sported the pleasant textural opposition of a fluffy, mint-and-cilantro lamb hash stuffing, studded with comforting, soft-cooked potatoes.
In contrast to the rest of the menu, desserts at Chutney Masala are best if kept within the traditional Indian palate. An Indian cassata (ice cream with glace fruit and chocolate sauce) felt a little baroque and suffered from anemic chocolate sauce. Far better was rasmalai, or tender curdled milk and whey balls, served in a bowl of rich, dreamy cardamom and saffron milk.
Given its charm, cute space, and palate-wakening flavors—and that addictive cucumber coolata—we’ll give our corner Indian a pass next time, and head back to Chutney Masala.
4 W Main St, Irvington-on-Hudson
(914) 591-5500; chuneymasalabistro.com
Hours: Lunch everyday 12-3 pm;
dinner Sun to Thurs 5-10 pm, Fri and Sat 5-11 pm.
entrees:$18-$26, desserts: $7-$9
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