Traditional Indian food, on the rocks
Rating: 3.0 stars
January 17, 2007 3:08:00 PM

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.

Desserts are unusually successful. Well, maybe not the gulab jamun ($6), a pair of doughnut holes in syrup. But the rasmalai ($6), patties of cheesecake in a rich sauce laced with rosewater and cardamom, is outstanding. The kheer ($6) will be right up there as soon as the cook stops adding sugar before the rice fully cooks(thus making gritty but delicious rice pudding). Mango crème brûlée ($6) was too thick and rich for my expectations, but a chocolate cake ($6) was three layers of ice cream on a chocolate base with whipped cream, surprising in a good way.

Service at Mela is excellent, even when it fills up. There is a no-reservations policy, which may work in a small neighborhood with a lot of small restaurants.

Mela, 578 Tremont Street, Boston | Open daily, 11:30 am–11 pm | AE, DI, MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking | Access up two large steps from sidewalk level | 617.859.4805

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Robert Nadeau:


Well, if their other restaurants are any indication, this is bound to be a disappointment. I consider myself an Indian-food expert--I worked as a waitress at an Indian restaurant for nearly two years (and ate there every day that I worked there, which was both full and part time, depending), and since I stopped, I've made it my mission to try as many as I can in my area (mostly Somerville and Cambridge, but some Boston as well) and judge their quality. I've yet to eat at Mantra, so I'll leave that one out--I've been there for the clubnights (also a sore disappointment--nothing but a meatmarket for the blowout-haircut-wearing, inane-conversation-holding, vapid locals from the North Shore (like where I went to public high school), but both Diva and Cafe of India were nothing but average. In fact, for the money you had to shell out at each place (especially at Diva), the food was downright shitty. In further fact, the one and only time I've gotten sick from Indian food was from the goat I had at Diva once. Sure, that could have been circumstantial--a one-time deal. But the fact remains that the food has been a disappointment. If you're in Davis Square and want Indian, my advice is to skip the Diva and head down the street to Namaskar--it's next to Anna's Taqueria, tucked away--you could almost miss it if you didn't look closely enough. Their food is the BEST Indian I've had in my life, next to the food of our dear Satnam, with whom I worked at the indian restaurant in Hanover, NH, and who had a magician's touch. Namaskar's prices are literally cheap--ca. $9.95 to $12.95 on the dinner menu for a vegetarian or meat dishes. And for the quality of food--and service, might I add--that you're getting, you're pretty much robbing the owners. I gave Diva and Cafe enough chances to ascertain that I didn't like what they were doing--overcharging for ambiance, overpromising on food, and underdelivering. You've gotta hand it to them on the presentation (well, fancy plates is about as far as it goes), but I'd rather take my dollars elsewhere.

POSTED BY NelaCaramela AT 01/25/07 9:47 AM

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