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Masala Art

This family restaurant balances old favorites with new adventures in Indian cuisine.

The Kapoors are trendsetters in business, in life and in the kitchen.

Mother and father, Shikha and Vinod Kapoor, along with their son and daughter-in-law, run three Indian restaurants in the Boston area. And Masala Art, in Needham, is just one of many firsts for the adventurous culinary family.

"We were the first Indian restaurant to break into the suburbs," said Sorabh Kapoor, the 32-year-old son, who, along with his wife, Anuradha Kapoor, manages Masala Art.

"We never looked to other restaurants for ideas," he added, "we come up with our own."

"You want to have the new items, you want to have your signature dishes," he said, "but it's also important to take care of people who are trying Indian food for the first time or for those who have their favorites."

In two weeks the young Kapoor will debut a new menu, which adds nearly 30 items to their already 100-dish-deep offering. One section he is particularly excited about is dedicated to Indian Chinese, which uses Indian spices in classic Chinese fare, like fried rice and noodle dishes.

"No other restaurant in the area is doing this kind of cooking," he said.

 "We're the pioneers of Boston in terms of Indian restaurants; we really haven't followed tradition."

The young Kapoor takes his adventurous cue from his family who has worked in the restaurant business for 30-plus years. His mother and father currently run Bombay Club restaurants located in the South End and Faneuil Hall, but have also seen other ventures close over time.

"My sister used to own the very first Indian restaurant in Massachusetts," said Mrs. Kapoor, who traveled from Delhi, where she grew up, to the United States in the early 70s after her father passed away.

"I used to help (my sister) when I was studying," she said, "so I had a little experience in the restaurant business."

This little experience bolstered the young couple, who married in 1977, to open their first restaurant, Kabob and Curry, in the Back Bay area in 1981.

"It was a learning experience," Kapoor said. But she and her husband were naturals and the small 45-seat restaurant was soon popular among locals and young students.

Kapoor is an instinctual cook who learned the trade from the women who surrounded her. "My mother-in-law and my mother were very good cooks," she said. "And I'm always keen to learn new things."

Mr. Kapoor, meanwhile, brings his own unique instincts.

"He's a good taster," Mrs. Kapoor said.

"I can always tell what is wrong with a dish, or what is missing," he added.

The couple keeps their taste buds tingling with frequent travel to London, the informal capital of Indian cuisine, and their familial home Delhi, India.

"We travel a lot to find out what people are doing," Mrs. Kapoor said. These taste adventures help inspire new dishes and contribute to an ever-evolving menu.

Mrs. Kapoor is the executive chef of all three restaurants. With her son, she develops new recipes and also instructs the kitchen staff on new items. Though, with Indian spices, cooking sometimes has to be intuitive.

"The kitchen staff is Indian and they have been trained over here," she said. "Over the period of time they have learned to control the spices, the chili parts of it, so that people can enjoy the food instead of feeling too hot."

The Needham restaurant, which opened seven years ago, is designed around an open kitchen and a spice bar that acts as a live cooking stage in the evening.

"The theme of this restaurant is the art of blending spices," Mr. Kapoor said.

The live cooking demo begins with the chef roasting whole spices on the griddle, while informing the guests about the various health benefits of each spice.

"He'll grind the spices in different grinders in front of you," he said, "and cook it piece meal, either seafood, chicken and lamb or vegetable."

The whole meal, which must be reserved ahead of time, lasts two hours and is complemented by a wine pairing.

"It's a way of introducing ourselves and what we can do to the public," he said of the spice bar.

In addition to their three restaurants, the family also manages a catering business for parties and weddings. The summer has been busy for them, just last weekend they catered seven weddings.

"We are the largest Indian food caterers in New England for the Indian weddings," Mr. Kapoor said.

Despite some guest lists inching over 500 people, the Kapoors takes it all in stride.

"It's fun," Mrs. Kapoor said. "We like to work with the customer and build a menu around what they want."

Keeping a level head in the restaurant business can be difficult, but Mrs. Kapoor said it helps when you are working with your family.

"It's a family business and it's good to have a family in this business particularly," she said," because you can be on top of everything."

Some new and signature dishes available at Masala Art include:

Chili Chicken with vegetable fried rice

      Sautéed chicken cooked in a spicy red chili sauce with scallions, green chilies and Indian spices.

Gobhi Gulistan

      A whole steamed cauliflower grilled over a charcoal flame and then finished in a yogurt, cashew and fresh mint sauce.

      "Indian cuisine is naturally vegetarian-friendly," said Mrs. Kapoor, a vegetarian herself. This is best shared but can be eaten as a stand-alone entrée as well.

Lamb Barra Kebab

      For this specialty, baby lamb chops are marinated for three days in papaya, a "natural meat tenderizer," Mrs. Kapoor said. It is then cooked with Indian spices like paprika and cumin and cardamom in a clay oven, called "tandoor."

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