The origin story of Roni Mazumdar and chef Chintan Padya’s Unapologetic Foods hospitality group — which runs several of New York City’s absolute best restaurants of any kind, including Dhamaka, Semma, and Adda — begins in 2011, when Mazumdar and his father, Satyen Mazumdar, opened the original Masalawala on the Lower East Side.
“We found the cheapest possible location in the neighborhood — everyone called it ‘the corner of death’ — and unceremoniously opened this tiny hole in the wall named ‘The Masalawala,’ because Masalawala dot com was already taken,” Roni tells Brooklyn Magazine.
Neither Mazumdar had any prior restaurant experience, but Satyen had always loved cooking — Masalawala is a nickname; it means, roughly, “spice guy” — and so they put lots of dishes on the menu from their native Kolkata, in West Bengal, from which the family had immigrated in 1996. Problem was, no one cared about the Bengali stuff, everyone just wanted chicken tikka masala, and, as a struggling small business, the Mazumdars caved to demand and changed the focus of the place in order to survive.
Still though, Roni couldn’t shake feelings of regret. “What’s happening with our cuisine?” he remembers thinking. “I wanted to do one thing, but I ended up somewhere else. That’s when chef Chintan and I teamed up.” At Adda, which the two opened in 2018 on a dreary patch of Long Island City, they decided to stop compromising. And they’ve seen nothing but success since.
“The goal at Adda was to push the boundaries, and ever since then we’ve taken more chances each time,” says Roni. “So in the process of helping my father find his dream, I ended up finding my own. And that’s what brings us here today.”
“Here” is on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, sitting in the lovely back garden at the all-new, staggeringly good Masalawala and Sons, a restaurant loaded with dishes that, unless you also are from, or have spent time traveling through, West Bengal, you’ve probably rarely or never encountered before. It is also, chef Pandya says, “literally an ode to Roni’s father.”
As Pandya tells it, when he and Mazumdar signed the lease in Brooklyn, and subsequently shut down the first Masalawala in 2011, they knew Bengali cuisine would be the anchor here. “Let’s recreate the entire vision that you had when you opened the original,” Pandya remembers telling Satyen Mazumdar. “So me and Roni sat with him for hours and hours over seven or eight months, just talking about his food memories.”
If you’ve ever been to an Unapologetic restaurant, you know you’re going to get lots of big, bold flavors here, sometimes fiery as hell, sometimes just deep and rich, with a few tableside theatrics thrown in to make it fun. Also important to both Pandya and Mazumdar: no fussy plating. In fact, many of these dishes are served in the same sort of vessel in which they were prepared back when Satyen first encountered them, starting in the 1950s.
In one case, that means an actual coconut. For Pandya’s Daab Chingri, dozens of tiny prawns (shell, legs, head, eyes, all intact, of course) are stuffed into a shell with a zippy yellow sauce and roasted. Your server opens the top at your table, scrapes the insides of the fruit to dislodge big chunks of meat, and you scoop it all out and plop it atop some kalajeera rice drizzled with ghee. It’s how they used to cook it on the beach, Mazumdar tells us, and it’s extraordinary.
Another big winner, which arrives in a pot that looks like it’s been scorched in a hundred roadside campfires, is the Kosha Mangsho, a mess of tender, funky braised lamb with sticky globs of dark masala sauce that you rake up off the bottom with your fork. You won’t envy the dishwasher, but you will be extremely happy while you’re wolfing it down.
There are many other entree-sized options, starring things such as spicy chicken, rice and lentil porridge, eggplant, mutton, and fish heads, all of which are delicious, but don’t skip over the snacky starters at the top of the menu to get there. Some of our favorite bites of the night came from up here, like the Dahi Vada, a lentil dumpling buried in a crock of slightly sweet, wonderfully tangy spiced yogurt.
If Pandya’s still making his Macher Dim when you sit down, get it. There are only a limited number of these poached fish roe dishes available each night, and they are exceptional.
The pair of barramundi appetizers — one steamed in a banana leaf, the other battered and crisp-fried, both with a surprising mustard sting — are also must orders.
One more: the Ripon Street Majja, which is hacked up hunks of bone, loaded with marrow, and blanketed in shaved egg. It’s a dish Pandya researched and recreated after Satyen told them about a meal he ate decades ago. “Roni’s dad never ate beef,” says Pandya. “In India beef is not a very popular thing. But one time when he was a teenager he went to a place with his friend and they had this dish and he only realized after he ate it that it was beef. He loved it so much. It was a very strong memory, so we wanted to include it.”
In addition to serving lots of excellent food, Masalawala and Sons is also just a delightful place to hang out for a couple of hours. On pleasant nights the obvious place to do this is in the spacious backyard, but the indoor dining room also looks festive and appealing. A full liquor license means a full cocktail program, and there are lots of beers and wines available as well.
And if you haven’t figured it out already, Masalawala and Sons isn’t a copy, or even a sequel, to any of Pandya and Mazumdar’s other places. “We never want to do a cookie cutter concept,” said Pandya. “India is a country with 1.4 billion people and so much diversity in food it changes every 13, 14 miles. And yet we have been stuck with like seven dishes for all our lives to define Indian cuisine, and some of those aren’t even actually from India. That has hurt our culture a lot, and it hurt me personally a lot. So that’s why we always create something new with each restaurant.”
Masalawala and Sons is located at 365 Fifth Avenue, between Sixth and Fifth Streets, and is currently open on Tuesday through Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations only for now, while they work out any kinks and ramp up production in the kitchen, but walk-ins will be welcome soon.