HOT-ROCKS GIMMICK: Meat and seafood sizzle enticingly at your table.
When I heard that this space had been taken over by One World Cuisine (Mantra, Diva, Kashmir, Bukhara, Café of India), I knew it would end up handsomely decorated, with above-average food. Besides a long wall of windows, the rooms feature sheet-copper accents and hanging lamps full of frou-frou. Set into the walls are ancient-looking religious art carvings (or casts of such carvings). The far wall has a clever niche like a deep, wide frame, which features modern photos of India brilliantly displayed in more deep frames; so it’s like seeing the scenes through two windows. The floor looks like marble tile but, in fact, is forgiving vinyl. And translucent curtains are somewhere between red and apricot. The music is Indian and Tibetan, folk and techno; Bollywood pop tickles the ears at lunch. The whole scene evokes both Asian and modern styles in a series of fusions.
The menu is mostly traditional, with some fusion here and there and at least one “hot-rock” gimmick.We started with complimentary demitasse bowls of tomato and coconut soup ($4/à la carte). The amalgam was yellow and had a subtle, dry spicing that canceled out the sweetness of coconut milk and tomato. Jhingha chat ($8) was a chopped salad with a few small shrimp, cubes of potato, and a tamarind-yogurt-sweet-and-sour dressing that made every bite appetizing and delicious. Mustard lamb ($14) is a fusion concept, a couple of baby lamb chops in a mustard sauce that will be wonderful once the cooks reduce the salt that made ours nearly inedible. (In fairness, Mela just opened; I normally give restaurants a month to work out kinks before reviewing them.)
The non-vegetarian platter ($13) is a pretty good appetizer for four people, with truly amazing lamb kebabs marinated until they taste somewhat like blue cheese. Chicken tikka were milder kebabs, as were chicken pakoras (chicken fingers done right). And an inch of seekh kebab (like a mild homemade sausage) was very popular, with the only dud being an overcooked meat samosa, another easy fix. Thisplate, however, could use a little more dipping sauce, especially the tamarind chutney. (They could be saving the superb mint chutney for the hot-rock dinners, which are baked on hot rocks at the table.)
Based on our scallop-and-salmon seafood hot-rock platter ($27), this gimmick’s appeal is the wonderful aroma and soundcreated when thin slices of oil-marinated salmon and scallop hit the hot, smooth stone. The hot-rock dinner brings two sauces: one, mint chutney; the other, coriander and cardamom seeds in a tomato base, also outstanding. With that comes a large but undressed salad, and a good amount of superior and fragrant white basmati rice.
In the “Modern Indian” category, “subz pachmael” ($16) is a dry vegetable curry with a lot of coriander seeds and panch phoran, a typical Bengali seasoning made from five types of seeds. It’s a fine vegan entrée, with especially good chunks of summer squash and carrot, and nice strips of asparagus, onion, peppers, and such. Meanwhile, duck jalfrezi ($19) offers boneless chunks with a lot of absorbent vegetables (summer squash, eggplant, mushrooms) in a rich sauce reminiscent of Thai green curries.
Chicken vindaloo ($16) also features boneless meat with chunks of potato in an excellent sauce, sharp with vinegar and tomato. Dishes can be ordered mild, medium, or hot, and we found that these corresponded reliably to one-, two-, and three-silhouette codes on Thai and Chinese menus. Hot vindaloo was quite spicy. Medium jalfrezi was notably spicy, and so on. The sauces that come with the small dishes are great, and can be used to flavor rice or flatbreads. We had an aloo naan ($5), so well stuffed with mashed potato that it was like a cross between a pita and a pierogi, as well as onion kulcha ($4) and garlic naan ($4), mildly flavored sopping breads.
I returned for the luncheon buffet ($9.95) to get a sense of the rest of the menu. The tomato-coconut soup was back, along with the undressed salad. And the rice was gussied up with a few peas and carrots and some cumin seeds. Then we had two excellent vegan dishes: peas and potatoes in a hot, red curry; and baingan bartha, eggplant caviar with superb spicing. The non-vegetarian options were garlic beef ($15 at dinner) in a tomato sauce rich with coriander seed, chicken tikka masala ($17 at dinner) in a tomato cream sauce, and tandoori chicken presented with fried onions.
There’s a fairly extensive wine list to choose from if you order mildly spiced food or stick close to tandoor-roasted meats. A glass of Clos LaChance merlot ($10) had nice fruit, but didn’t stand a chance against Indian cuisine. Better to go with Kingfisher beer ($5), the shipment of which was actually fresher than the restaurant’s supply of Sam Adams ($5) in the opening weeks. Homemade lemonade ($3) is just that, but you can bank the fires with sweet or salty lassi, or a variety of sweet shakes. Coffee and decaf ($2) are decent, and presented in Irish coffee glasses, as is masala tea ($3), real “chai” without the elaborate cream and sweetening of the popular versions.