Masala of India Cuisine
539-B NE Northgate Way, 417-1118
11 am-10 pm every day.

Who needs Teatro ZinZanni at $89 a pop, when you can have an improbable Indian comic dispensing riddles over a nice $10.95 lamb vindaloo?

In truth, our waiter-cum-vaudevillian struck us as a little brusque at first. When friends and I showed up at Masala (in a mini-mall, next door to a nail salon) he led us off to our table so quickly that we had to half-jog to keep up with him. As soon as he started taking our drink order, he interrupted us to answer the phone.

But when he returned, he was in full swing. We expressed some interest in beer. "Do not consider American beer," he commanded. He continued on, insisting that though he does not drink himself, his customers had told him repeatedly that Haywards 5000, an Indian beer, was utterly delightful. As we drank the light, honeyed lager, we heard him deliver the same beer speech almost word for word at the table behind us.

The menu at Masala is of the standard Punjabi style found in most U.S. Indian restaurants (I imagine a massive printing press somewhere in Queens that churns out menus for the whole country). But not every Indian menu comes with such a determined salesman. Were we ordering the butter chicken, he inquired? "The first bite you will like it. The second bite, you will be addicted. If you don't order it, you will regret it." So I bailed on the seekh kabobs ($11.95) I had planned to order; I wouldn't want to die regretting this butter chicken. Then there was the issue of raita, the cucumber yogurt sauce that helps cool down blistering curries. Our waiter explained that there is no need for raita if we were already ordering the dahi bhala ($3.95), lentil flour dumplings served in yogurt sauce. He continued on proudly, "See, I am advising you and saving you money."

When said dumplings arrived, they were springy and light, and in fact doused in enough sweet-ish yogurt to last the whole meal. Our samosas ($3.25) crackled delicately on the outside; inside they plumped with a light potato-and-pea filling that was a bit overdosed with the oniony seasoning. Too often, I get greedy and order stuffed naan, even though I really prefer the plain version as a counterpoint to all the ginger, garlic, and chili flying about the table; this night was no exception, Masala's cheese ($3.25) spinach ($3.25) and garlic ($2.95) breads would have been fine on their own, but seemed heavy with all the other flavors on the table.

The entrées were admirable warhorses. Everybody's favorite veggie dish, saag paneer ($10.95) was excellent, with tender cheese and spinach that was not overstewed, but remained resolutely green in color and flavor. Tender cubes of lamb bobbed happily in our piquant vindaloo, and of all the little brass pots crowding the table, the eggplant bharta ($9.95)--with its flecks of chili and tomato and a distinctive salsa-like texture--was crowned yummiest. As for the butter chicken--which turned out to be chunks of tandoori chicken in a gently spiced red sauce, thickened, I believe, with ground nuts--well, I'm sorry to say it wasn't my favorite. Like the coconut shrimp curry ($12.95), and even the storied Haywards 5000, it suggested that someone at Masala has a sweet tooth.

But I quibble, because as soon as we filled our own to-go containers with leftovers, the after-dinner show began. Okay, said our waiter, "Half circle, full circle, half circle, A, half circle, full circle, right angle, A. What is it?" After we'd deciphered the nature of the riddle, we got the answer, but in good faith, I can't reveal it or you might not go and try Masala yourself. After we'd figured it out, our quizmaster came back with two or three more riddles to puzzle over; each more awkwardly phrased than the next. One even had to be sketched out on his order pad. I'm not quite sure what he keeps in store for repeat customers: Do they get the same song and dance, or does he have a second act? I suppose it's just another riddle to ponder. In any case, the first riddle stuck in our heads for the whole car ride home (chant it to yourself with an Indian accent, you'll see what I mean).