First Look: Masti

Masti breaks the boundaries of typical Indian fare

Masti means "fun" in Hindi, and from the moment you enter the new Toco Hills eatery, an experience that is both vibrant and merry awaits. Bollywood music breezes through the sound system and the aroma of Indian spices wafts throughout the dining room from the busy open kitchen. The restaurant serves Indian-style street food influenced by Indian, Pakistani, Middle Eastern, and Tex-Mex cuisines.

To prepare for his second restaurant, chef/owner Ricky Walia, who also runs Café Bombay, ate his way through the streets of India in the name of research. At Masti, Walia's aim was to put a new spin on traditional Indian flavors in hopes of enchanting diners not acquainted with Indian cuisine.

Inside, a kaleidoscope-like array of brightly hued booths sits against whimsical, peacock-like wallpaper. Much like the counterbalance with the food, the room is mellowed with the warm, rustic elements of wood and brick. The dining room appears small and cozy yet a number of large tables are filled with Indian folks eating family-style. Photographs of Indian market scenes line the wall. A table of girls chat over puffs from a hookah on the patio.

Don't let the term street food fool you; it is more a style than a size. Portions here are ample. Spice plays a prevalent role in dishes but rarely gets heavy-handed here. Our server warned us of the vindaloo’s heat, but Masti's turned out to be a tamer version than vindaloos at other Indian restaurants around town.

It is easy to order many plates from the Street Eats section of the menu and miss out on the Favorites section or Traditional Indian Meals. There are paneer dogs, kind of like a scrambled and curried cottage cheese on a toasted hot dog bun, and butter chicken tacos ($8.99) with tender chunks of chicken that come in a rich and tangy butter and tomato-based sauce wrapped in pancake-like bread made from rice and lentil batter. An order of chicken masala burgers ($9.99) includes two sliders of grilled and shredded chicken coated in a spicy and tangy red Masti sauce, which is great for dipping the accompanying skinny fries. There is also a daily specials slip and chalkboard from which to choose.

Fun things to order both based on taste and the looks you'll get from curious onlookers are the dosa ($11.99), crepe-like fermented rice and lentil pancakes with different filling choices. Each one is thin and crispy at their lacey edges and soft in the middle. The keema version with minced chicken and layers of Indian spices comes wrapped like the longest burrito ever, twice the size of the plate on which it is served. Butter chicken dosa is served on top of a banana leaf with the crepe sheltering it in glorious pyramid form.

Thalis, named after the metal plate food is served on as well as the system of eating, traditionally come with three elements of substance (protein, carbs, fat). At Masti, much like Cafe Bombay, thalis ($14.99) come with a choice of two slow-cooked mains (one at lunch for $9.99) along with katoris, those small round bowls of rice, dal (lentil soup), papadum, choppati (bread), raita (cold, yogurt-y soup), and gulab jamun (doughnut balls in honey/rose syrup). All thalis at Masti rely on daily special for choices. Thalis at Decatur's Chai Pani, while similar, offer the choice of one main.

The pace of things at Masti may seem frenetic at times but servers are patient when explaining dishes in detail, quick to fill water glasses, and speedy with food. Managers are attentive too. You may have to flag one down to get a bill, however. No one is in a rush to turn tables.

Round out a meal with a cup of soothing, spice-filled cardamom chai or matka kulti ($5) ice cream that comes served in a clay pot. A malai kulti ($5), ice cream on a stick, would also put the remnants of many spices to rest. On the way out don't miss the palate-cleansing paan bar, with bowls of sweetened rose, sugar-coated fennel seeds, dried tamarind, sweets, and dried fruits.

Masti succeeds at melding the cookways of America and India in a casual, festive environment. Using vehicles like burgers and tacos as conduits for bold Indian flavors adds an element of approachability to the exotic cuisine. As a result, Masti’s menu offers an array of suitable options for both longtime Indian-food lovers and novices alike.

??Editor's note: This story has been updated since its original publication.

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