By Russ Lay | Outer Banks Voice on October 23, 2017
Yes, Virginia. And North Carolina. The Outer Banks now has an authentic Indian restaurant.
You’ve probably seen it when you travel north off the Otuer Banks. Masala Bay sits at the west end of the Wright Memorial Bridge on the Currituck mainland.
Pass through the doors, and you enter a small bar area with a few places to sit. Past the bar, you’ll find an enclosed dining room with windows aplenty, offering a panoramic view of the Currituck Sound.
Outside is a large deck with plenty of al fresco seating, and a picnic area for parties and other gatherings.
All of which begs the next question: Is the food as good as the view, and is this Indian restaurant the real deal? We’ll save some of the suspense. The answer is yes.
Masala Bay opened in early summer with very little fanfare. As word slipped out, through social media and a very low-key advertising campaign, locals and visitors alike visited the new eatery and the early feedback was excellent.
We wanted to try Masala Bay over at least two visits, and bring others along. Why? Because Indian cuisine is so radically different than any other ethnic food offered locally, we sought reactions from established fans of the cuisine as well as a few newcomers to the wonderful blends of spices and herbs that are the hallmark of food from the subcontinent.
After two outings that left our groups wanting more, we decided to pull the trigger and put our findings on here for our readers to digest. (Pun intended).
But first we wanted to talk to the manager, Naresh Kirigi, about the origins of Marsala Bay, its “challenging” location and, of course, the food itself.
Kirigi is soft-spoken, projecting a persona at odds with the bigger-than-life, gregarious restaurant owners and chefs we encounter on television these days. He emigrated from India to the United States in 2012 and he landed in northern Virginia, honing his craft in Herndon and Leesburg.
His specialty there was northern Indian cuisine and Masala Bay will follow the same regional style.
Unlike the client base in Northern Virginia, where customers were familiar with Indian cuisine, Kirigi has discovered that for many locals and visitors, Masala Bay marks their first encounter with authentic Indian dishes.
Northern Indian food is defined by its spice, more use of dairy products and wheat-based dishes, such as bread, and it leans more to the vegetarian side.
Meat dishes often find their way into a tandoori oven (which can be clay or metal), and cheeses, yogurt, garlic and clarified butter play a major role.
Another aspect of northern Indian food is that meats are marinated, often in garam masala spice.
Experienced diners will find all of their favorite Indian styles, such as those served with a spicy vindaloo sauce (which has a heavy onion base with hot sauces added), and curries, which feature tomato and onion as the base.
Another specialty is biryani, which includes chili, cumin seeds and other spices combined to make a single spice. It is served over basmati rice with a choice of meat (lamb, chicken, shrimp), but this dish tends to run hot, even when ordered mild, and diners should be aware.
All of which led Kirigi to offer that because so many customers are not familiar with Indian spices, they have toned down the spice mix in many entrees.
As a result, some of the dishes we sampled for this article and described as hot may now be served a bit milder. Check with your wait staff about the spice level.
On both outings, we found the staff very knowledgeable about the dishes and their flavor profiles. When asked about spice levels, their descriptions were usually spot on, and more often than not, they explained before a decision was made why a particular dish may or may not be spicy — an outcome usually determined by the cooking method, tradition, and even the ingredients.
For example, we learned the rice opens up and absorbs the spices in biryani dishes, making them hotter to the taste. We tried it anyway and it was delicious. And a tad heavy on the heat, just as we were told to expect.
Moving past the food itself, we asked Kirigi about the location. As many locals are aware, several restaurants have come and gone at this location. He almost seemed to be expecting the question and he answered quickly.
“Many people warned us about being on the other side of the bridge from Dare County. But we looked at several locations and we loved this spot. The water views, the outside deck dining, access by boat, and plenty of room inside for enclosed dining with nice views of the sound, and a separate, more intimate bar.”
“We want Masala Bay to be a destination,” Kirigi says, “something special and worth the drive over here.”
When asked how the restaurant was doing, Kirigi was very upbeat.
“While lunch is still slower than we’d like, the dinners have done very well, and on some nights, especially holiday weekends, we’ve been overwhelmed a few times. We’re experiencing increasing numbers of locals who are repeat customers, and tourists are finding us on social media and other outlets.”
All of which is a necessary component of the next phases he has planned for Masala Bay. The top priority for next year will be their to-go party trays.
Plenty of restaurants offer these prepared meals and sides to go, which are designed to allow visitors staying in larger homes with as many as 40 people to experience local restaurant cuisine without trying to find one that can serve a crowd that large.
Masala Bay offers a choice of three entrees, which include eight chicken or lamb dishes, and eight vegetarian choices. Also included are sides of naan bread and saffron basmati rice, which is usually combined by diners with the meat or vegetable selection.
The prices are what makes these to-go trays so enticing. For a party of 10, the price is $150, which comes to $15 a person. For $350, 30 people can be fed and the cost per person drops to under $12. The best deal feeds 40 hungry visitors for $450.
Kirigi also hopes to introduce catering in the future.
“In northern Virginia, many locals love Indian food and often choose it for catered events. We’re not there yet, but we feel over the long run, locals and visitors will think of Indian food as a catering option,” he said.
Now a little about the food experience.
On our first visit in June, our party of four, there we no vegetarians, and the same situation occurred on our second visit, with five present.
Kirigri told us the best seller by far on the vegetarian menu was the Shamsavera Kofta, a dish of potatoes, spinach and cheese coquettes cooked in a creamy onion curry sauce.
Vegans who wish to avoid dairy products can look for Bangan Bharta (roasted eggplant cooked in a tandoori oven, with onions, peppers, ginger, garlic, and spices) or Pindi Chole, (cooked chickpeas in a dry mango powder and green chili gravy.)
One of our group did order the Chat Pata Chat ($7), which includes fried wafers, potatoes, chickpeas, tomatoes, topped with yogurt and tamarind chutney, and pronounced it as a full-flavored dish that would satisfy meat eaters and veggie lovers alike.
There are four other vegetarian dishes, and the price range is $13 to $15 for these selections.
For the meat eaters, the process is to pick your meat and then your style of cooking.
For meats, the choices are chicken, lamb, or shrimp. Some dishes also feature fish and scallops.
The styles include tandoori (cooked in a clay or metal oven), vindaloo (a hotter spic gravy with an onion base), curry (tomato based with onion), and rice dishes including biryani. Biryani dishes can also be made as vegetarian or vegan.
These entrees all price out between $14 and $21.
Appetizers are priced from $6 to $12, and we found three we absolutely loved on both trips: the samosas ($6), which are deep-fried patties stuffed with potatoes, green peas and spices and served with a chutney; the curried mussels, which are self-explanatory and delicious ($12); and the garlic shrimp ($12), which also includes the curry.
For my entrée on the first visit, I chose the lamb curry and it was an excellent choice. The lamb pieces were plentiful and succulent, and the curry was chock full of complex flavors.
On our next visit I chose lamb again, but this time biryani style ($18). Once again, the lamb was superb and the basmati rice was flavorful and of course, aromatic. This one ran a little hot, as we mentioned above, and our waitress warned us it would be. If you order this and want it milder, ask if the latest version has been toned down. If not, proceed with some caution!
Another favorite, chosen on both of our outings was the chicken tikka masala. It comes with an onion, tomato and cream sauce, which is medium-thick. The chicken pieces were tender and moist and bursting with flavors. No heat issues here, which is why this was ordered twice.
Another in our party selected the Kashmiri Rogan Josh ($18), which includes lamb, Kashmiri chili, dry ginger, fennel and onions. It was her first rogan josh dish and after sharing with the crowd, there was none left.
Four of the nine people in our group consider themselves well-acquainted with Indian food, including one New York City resident who eats Indian food as a matter of course. He pronounced Masala Bay an equal to the Big Apple eateries he frequents.
The rest of us, who have sampled Indian food in Hampton Roads, Raleigh, Baltimore, Atlanta and Tampa, all agreed that Masala Bay is authentic and deserving of the accolades and high ratings it is receiving on social media sites.
Everyone agreed the food was excellent and return visits were in order.