Be forewarned. Mehfil looks like a cross between a sub shop and a laundromat. One glance and we thought, never mind. After we went in, though, and fell in love on the spot with the owner, Kamini Bhatti, and her family, we stayed to enjoy a delightful evening.
Mehfil's calling cards read "Indian & American Cuisine -- 'Moghulai Touch of India' -- Serving Vegetarian and Non Veg. Meals." "Indian and American cuisine" could mean Americanized Indian food, but doesn't. Weekdays Mehfil opens at 6 a.m., and serves omelets, pancakes, toast, bacon, sausage and fries. At noon, customers hungry for American food can eat subs and sandwiches, and for dinner, fried chicken ($4.95) or roast beef ($5.95).
Wanting to sample the "Moghulai" side of the menu, we ordered blindly and ignorant of the fact that "aloo" means potato (and, for that matter, that "Moghulai" means Moghul-style food, and "mehfil" means a gathering of friends). The owner came to our rescue, to suggest a different combination of dishes. We put ourselves in her hands and were served samosas ($2), pakoras ($2.75) and chana and aloo chat ($2.95).
What we tasted fit my idea of food prepared by a capable home cook. Two chunky, deep-fried, greaseless samosas consisted of light dough wrapped around a firm puree of potatoes mixed with peas. We particularly liked the wrapper, which had the taste and texture of pie crust.
The lovely pakoras, made of battered, deep-fried onion and eggplant, had some of the delicacy of successful tempura. Lifted only a moment before from the fryer, they were hot, greaseless, fresh and crackly. We dipped both samosas and pakoras in an exceptionally good pureed green coriander sauce that had the heat of pureed green chilies and the sour edge of pomegranate seeds.
Chana and aloo chat was a cool salad of garbanzos, disks of potato, fresh tomato and cucumber, in an intriguing, spicy mint, tomato, yogurt and pomegranate seed sauce.
Entrees were scarcely more expensive than appetizers and were served as informally out of plates and cereal bowls. Everything could easily have been shared around in any order. Because spiced spinach puree seems to be stirred up in every Indian kitchen, aloo palak ($3.95) was familiar. Here, the puree had been combined with chunks of spiced potato.
Keema matar ($4.95) looked like a rudimentary and unpropitious combination of ground beef and peas. Tasting it, we found the tender meat had been seasoned with subtlety. We all three liked it especially.
A member of Ms. Bhatti's family told us chicken biryani ($4.95) was going to be the best dish of all those we tried. We agreed with her assessment. It was a fluffy mound of lightly oiled basmati rice scattered with raisins, with darkly browned, chopped blanched almonds, with sauteed, partly caramelized onion rings, and with big hunks of chicken -- mostly leg with the bone in.
For a contrast of tastes, we ordered two sauces, raita ($1.95), a lightly spiced yogurt mixed with fine strands of cucumber, and cachumbar ($1.75), which was a raucous cousin to gazpacho -- spiced, coarse-chopped onion, fresh tomato, chopped hot green peppers, and cucumber. With all of this, we split two big circles of naan ($.75), an Indian bread somewhat like Middle Eastern pita, but charred in places from a quick turn on a grill.
Mehfil offered desserts, too. A delicious version of rasmalai ($2.50) bathed a disk of homemade, soft, milky cheese and ground pistachios in a sauce of reduced milk mixed with rosewater. We were also served something called chum chums ($2), which were easily likable -- two white gulab jamuns, or firm rounds of cheese, dry and textured like marzipan. In one of the final steps of their preparation, they're poached in sugar syrup.
Everything was cooked to order. As a consequence, dishes appeared gradually. We brought along beer and didn't watch the clock. There were few other customers. More people could mean a slower evening. A young man of the family brought assorted plates and silverware to our drugstore-style booth, where we sat on firm benches on either side of a plain blue table.
Toward closing time, we asked the owner about her business. We were told Mehfil serves American customers far more often than Indians, who for the most part think they can make everything that's served at home. We discussed Indian food stores along that stretch of Harford Road, and were promised, if we called ahead, that next time around we could sample stuffed betel leaves. We'll go back, even though we heard that chewing stuffed betel leaves can make your teeth look like Dracula's.
Next: Nickel City Grill
7946 Harford Road, 668-4846
Mondays to Thursdays 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays until 10 p.m., Saturdays 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sundays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
+ American and Indian cooking
NO-SMOKING AREA: No
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No