Until recently, much of the contents of my two spice drawers had progressed, if that’s the right word, from being nodding, youthful acquaintances, to good, mature friends, to fading senior citizens in the twilight of their useful lives. Then the purge. Out went the ages-old ajwain, into the garbage the geriatric cardamom pods, away with the nigella long ready for retirement … it was cruel, but it had to happen.
And then I walked into Mela Indian Bar and Grill, and it all came back with a bang. There’s very little in this suave and sophisticated environment to remind one of Inida, save for some elephant images and an effigy painting tucked into a corner of the bar. But the spice aromas emanating from the kitchen do it as surely as posters of the Taj Mahal or a squadron of sari-clad servers. That there are none should come as a great relief to anyone not of the sombrero school of obvious ethnic decorating. As a consequence the focus is all on the food.
Let’s start with the appetizers — many of which won’t be all that familiar. Dahi papri chaat, for example, is billed as a kind of street food and has many of the trappings of a dish that can be quickly assembled from simple ingredients — in this case, dal (lentils), chana (chickpeas), chutney, yogurt and a pile of fried dough squares. Indian nachos, in other words. The dish is quite different from the more conventional samosas and pakoras — which are available — but it’s well worth trying. (Note: It’s served cool.) Aloo tiki is also not on my hit parade of Indian delights, but it may soon become so. Fried potato balls studded with green peas are paired with a chili sauce accented with tamarind, and are a masterful blend of bland and pungent. But for a straightforward hit of heat, go for the chili paneer. It features cubes of the mild Indian cheese sautéed in an unapologetic chili sauce with tomato, bell pepper and lashings of ginger. The contrast of neutral with nearly nuclear is invigorating.
Breads are one of the many reasons I often seek out Indian restaurants (since, given the age of my spices, I obviously don’t cook Indian all that often). And though there are places in town with a greater selection, Mela does diners the favor of offering a basket of assorted breads. A la carte, we tried the paneer kulcha “filled with homemade cheese and spices” and the onion-flavored naan. “Filled with” has always been an exaggeration when it comes to Indian breads; “influenced by” might come closer — yet we liked it. Even better was the onion naan, puffed and slightly charred from its encounter with the tandoori oven.
Mela doesn’t seem to use the classic clay oven for much more than bread and a shrimp and a fish dish; you won’t find the ubiquitous tandoori chicken, for example. But you will encounter a robust chicken chettinad, a South India style dish. We asked for everything about medium spice level and could have tolerated just a tad more heat along with the tomato, black mustard seed and what appeared to be finely shredded curry leaf. (It’s risky guessing Indian spices, but whatever it was, it did add to the complexity of the flavors.) I’ll take this over tandoori any day.
With the exception of one top-billed ingredient, I’d also go back for the lamb nargisi in coconut sauce with hard-boiled egg. The sauce, accented with smoky, dark cardamom pods, was lush and lip-smacking, the cubes of meat tender and just lamby enough, but the egg was merely rubbery and contributed nothing. Perhaps if it were added just before serving …
An appealing array of vegetarian dishes is another reason besides bread to frequent Indian restaurants, and Mela’s selection doesn’t disappoint. Had we not already played the coconut hand with the lamb, we would have chosen the malai kofta, a dish of vegetable balls cooked in “a mildly-spiced creamy sauce with coconut and nuts.” Instead, we ordered the ghobi bhurji. What we got was bhindi masala. Our accommodating server immediately recognized that okra was not the same as cauliflower, but offered to leave the okra at no charge. No fools, we naturally accepted.
No contest, either, however. Not all at the table agreed, but for me the almost-charred okra was a little bitter and the various flavors not integrated. The finely-cut cauliflower with green peas, on the other hand, had a pleasant, smoky flavor and seemed to have come across its considerable character more slowly.
Nothing gets my goat (also on the menu, by the way) more than a waiter telling me “you won’t like (fill in the blank).” The response only strengthens my resolve. In this case, though, the waiter admitted that he was the one who really didn’t like the side of dahi wada. After having tried the fairly bland lentil patties doused with “fresh curds” (really more like yogurt) and tamarind chutney — all enlivened with black cumin seed — I can see his point. I’m not sorry I ordered it, but don’t have to do it again. I’m always a sucker for an order of achar, the pungent Indian pickle, however — despite is occasionally challenging parts. Spicy, sweet, sour, metallic … it seems to go with everything.
Mela is Sanskrit for fiesta, according to the menu, and nothing concludes a fete like a couple of exotic desserts. The cone-shaped kulfi as served at Mela is a little different from others I have had in that the dense and lightly sweet mix, tasting much like condensed milk, is studded with, not dominated by, pistachio. Always better once it warms a little, our serving had been thoughtfully pre-sliced to speed the process along. Slowing down was more the issue with falooda, the “royal dessert of Persia”; we were inclined to fight over it.
This one I had to Google, finding in the process that the innocent-looking (and very rose-colored) sundae substitute has three distinctly exotic ingredients: falooda sev ( a corn-flour noodle that is cooked and cooled), tukmuria (a seed, never one of the denizens of the spice drawer, that gets glutinous when soaked), and rooh-afza, a rose-scented syrup. Ice cream and milk are the other major players. The color is gorgeous, the rose flavor just distinctive enough, the various textures a real trip … in context, even the unnecessary aerosol cream, and normally malign maraschino cherry, were tolerable. And that’s saying a lot.
Mela focuses on food rather than décor, and the emphasis pays off in richly flavored dishes
Spicy chicken chettinad, the aloo tiki potato-patty appetizer, and the regal and rose-flavored falooda
11am-10pm Sun–Thu; 11am-10:30pm Fri & Sat