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Indian cuisine with a modern flair at Masala

Masala Bistro & Bar — newly opened in Ashland’s historic Railroad District — is a tasty and exotic excursion to India in a comfortable neighborhood space familiar to many, where the lemony scent of coriander, earthy cumin, sweet tamarind, spicy chilies and ginger now fill the air at 258 A St.

Masala has a tightly drawn menu that categorizes street food, classics, fusion, sides and desserts, an ideal selection of small-bite and full-meal options. The menu notes vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options, and most dishes can be ordered mild, medium or hot.

The traditional Indian meal of butter chicken, keema masala or saag paneer with rice, with a crunchy cabbage slaw and chutneys, ranges from $9.50 to $10.50. Or choose a thali, with tastes of two classics, plus roti or raita, for $14.

The street food is exactly what we hoped for — small bites, most of which you can eat with your fingers. They are perfect as appetizers or they can make up a nice tasting menu. They are served in progression, delivered to the table as each is finished in the kitchen.

Samosas and pakoras — vegetarian and with lamb or shrimp accompanied by tamarind and cilantro chutneys — are to be expected in an Indian restaurant. Less often found are the more interesting street-food selections such as Bombay sliders, papdi chaat and bhel poori. These are comfort foods offered up hot and fresh on the spot.

Two sliders are offered at $3.50 to $4: the Bombay slider, a chickpea-battered patty of potatoes and peas, and the keema slider, a delicately spiced blend of minced lamb, ginger, tomatoes, onions and house spices. This was the lamb that filled the samosa, and it was exceptional. I opted for the Bombay slider or vada pav, which was served on a dense, toothsome roll and topped with sev (a chickpea snack), tamarind and cilantro sauce. Delicious in just three flavorful bites.

Bhel poori was on my radar after my brother’s recent trip to Mumbai. At $4.50, Masala’s generous serving of puffed rice, peanuts, sev, lentils, red onion, tomatoes and chutneys would easily suit two to four diners. Enjoy it as soon as it is served, while the puffed rice and sev are still crisp; wait too long and the dish becomes soggy.

Masala’s fusion menu is fascinating. The dishes reflect the comfort food of other cultures, recreated with Indian spices and ingredients. Punjabi fish and chips at $10 is chickpea-battered cod, spiced potato balls and a vindaloo (Southern Indian vinegar-based hot curry) aioli. Street-sized Masala tacos at $3.50 each are available with fried kale, butter chicken or spiced lamb. My butter chicken taco was very good, tender chicken in a rich creamy sauce, well complemented by the fresh corn tortilla and crunchy cabbage slaw. Rice bowls, curries and stews are also on the fusion menu.

Two salads, including local chef Kumud Gokani’s famous Energy Sprout Salad, two raitas (the beet raita was brilliant pink, thick and flavorful), and two desserts — a mango yogurt pudding and gulab jamun — are also on the menu.

Masala’s craft cocktails ($7 to $8) are inspired by the spices and flavors of India and complement the spicy foods. My rose drop was made with a top-drawer vodka, a rose infusion and lemon — fresh summer tastes just right after a hot day. The Ayurveda is made with turmeric-infused gin, and the Mumbai margarita with jalapeno tequila, mango and lime. Nonalcoholic drinks also are available, including lassi, chai and lemonade. Four rotating taps are on hand, including Pabst Blue Ribbon at the moment.

The street-food selections are sized to pair with Masala’s cocktails, though it would have been nice to have a small dish of channa dal, chevdo or dal mix to accompany a drink or introduce a meal. These dry spicy snacks would be delicious with a craft cocktail or a beer.

Masala Bistro & Bar is a family affair. Sachta Bakshi Card and her husband run Oberon’s on the Plaza, and with her parents, Sumesh and Dimple Bakshi, and her sister, Sohana, they operate Masala. Sumesh and Dimple have only recently arrived from Vadodara, India, where they owned upscale restaurants about seven hours north of Mumbai. The Bakshis’ contemporary flair for traditional Indian food and their daughters’ American know-how are a great combination.

The restaurant is open from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Call 541-708-0943 or find it on Facebook.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

A Bombay slider, left, bhel poori, top, and a butter chicken taco at Masala Bistro & Bar in Ashland. Photo by Maureen Flanagan Battistella