Dining at Masala Bay Grill is an immersive, sensory experience. The traditional Northern Indian food they create always leaves me with a comfortable, full, glowy feeling that I suspect has to do with all the spices, flush with nourishing antioxidants, good for your body and mind. The curries, vindaloos, and tikka masalas are warming and comforting and enticing; each dish inherently rich in flavor and nuance. The bewitching accompaniment to dinner at Masala Bay is the sunset view that’s almost too pretty to post on your Instagram. The setting, the food, and the kindness of the staff blends together for a tranquil, inviting afternoon or evening meal unlike any other on the beach.
Located on the Currituck sound, just before the Wright Memorial Bridge, Masala Bay’s chefs, Sunij Rajthala and Indra Bahadur Karki, are gracing us with dishes that ooze freshness and authentic appeal. After talking with general manager, Niresh Khadgi about their lush garden out back which provides their daily supply of onions, cilantro, and other assorted produce, and Masala Bay’s high standards for quality which are evident on the plate, I followed him for a tiny adventure through a swinging door into the immaculate kitchen. There sat a tandoor oven, impressive and enviable, quietly humming away and beckoning my curiosity. Niresh removed the lid to reveal a clay interior, glowing with heat, and made my heart melt a little by asking if I’d like to watch him shape and cook a piece of naan. I could watch people cook all day, especially when it involves making fresh bread. To me, the process of kneading and shaping dough with your bare hands is an intimate one and carries so much value. Niresh plucked a round of dough, made fresh that morning, from a tray and deftly patted it out into a circle on a stainless steel table. It stretched as he pressed his fingertips into the soft surface then swiftly flipped it over onto a pillow that looked like a soccer ball that had been sliced in half- round on top, flat on the bottom. Lightly tugging and arranging the edges into a perfect circle, Niresh ran a small tool over the surface of the dough, pocking it with tiny dents to let air escape and produce those coveted, random, puffy bubbles in the naan that get browned and charred when cooked. Then, holding the pillow by the flat side, and with no hesitation, Niresh thrust his hand into the burning oven and slapped the dough against the clay wall where it stuck and began it’s beautiful process of becoming the tender, soft bread we love to tear apart and stuff with bites of meat, rice, and sauce to be devoured.
The naan is always made fresh to order like this at Masala Bay, never cooked in advance as it would lose the craveable texture we all love. Niresh explained how the tomato-based sauce for Butter Chicken tastes different when you eat it with rice than when you enjoy it as he does, dalloped onto a piece of naan. Without the starch from the rice, the sauce tastes creamier and bolder, and even more delicious if you ask me. With plans to come back later for dinner, I asked Niresh, who honed his restaurant and kitchen skills over many years in Northern Virginia, what his favorite thing to eat is. Vegetable Korma, he replied, sparking memories of my own countless visits to Indian buffets in Northern Virginia which taught me if there’s one cuisine that won’t make you miss the meat- it’s Indian. Chickpeas, eggplant, and potatoes all become the best versions of themselves when cooked in earthy spices and sauces, served with rice, naan, and intriguing condiments like a tart tamarind chutney or a cooling cucumber yogurt raita.
When we arrived for dinner, the four of us eased into chairs on the spacious deck outside and ignored the menu for a moment in favor of the rippling Currituck sound and bright blue sky laced with feathery clouds. You can see it all from this spot; a panorama of color and beauty. With our souls satisfied on this view, we ordered some things to munch on before our entrees. I can’t go to Masala Bay and not order the Sabzi Pakora- vegetable fritters full of herbs, onion, spinach, and smooth spices, fried in a crispy batter. They’re a dirty little secret in the best way- innocent, healthful vegetables dredged in chickpea flour and transformed into an indulgent deep-fried snack. We also couldn’t help but try the Samosa Chaat, which earned Masala Bay 2nd place at the annual Holiday Chef Challenge on the beach last winter. The flaky potato pastry is bursting with color and contrast from chickpeas in a sweet and tangy sauce, garnished with fresh onions and tomatoes.
When our entrees arrived- the recommended Vegetable Korma, Chicken Curry, Scallop Pulse, and chicken tenders with fries for the little one in our group – our server set down large white bowls brimming with colorful, fragrant concoctions and an oval platter of rice to share, along with the freshly fired garlic naan. Is there anything more inviting than a big spread of vibrant, aromatic food in front of you, ready for dipping and spooning and sharing? I dug into the Vegetable Korma, savory with a slight, delicious caramelized flavor, and I could taste the toasted spices in the creamy sauce that covered fresh beans, corn, and carrots – so hearty and pleasing. Because the servers always ask about your spice preference (don’t let an aversion to spicy food keep you away), I felt obligated to try my husband’s “hot” Chicken Curry and compare it to my own “medium-spicy” food – it was divine, tender chicken bathed in a ruby-red sauce with a spicy depth and richness to keep you reaching for more naan to sop up every last drop. Our friend’s scallops were sweet and juicy, just like you want them to be, lightly coated with a coconut milk and tamarind mixture that was just right with the fluffy rice underneath.
And so, we ate, family style, sampling bits of each other’s plates, sipping drinks, and breaking bread. We ate and talked and talked and ate and this is what summer should be on the OBX. As that stunning sunset burned down around us, our meal came to an end with a sweet treat of Gulab Jamun: little fried balls of sugary homemade dough, coated in a lemony syrup and shredded coconut. Evenings like this are as good as they are rare and dear. It’s important, every once in a while, to immerse ourselves in a feast for our senses like this one at Masala Bay Grill, filling our eyes, stomachs, and hearts with color, flavor, and absolute beauty- on the plate and everywhere else.