Tried-and-true Indian flavors

Restaurant Review

Palate

April 09, 2006|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

I can't think of a better place to eat fiery food than sitting in a dining room painted the color of icy lime sherbet. Was that the reason for the color choice when Mehek, a sweet little Indian restaurant in Fells Point, painted its walls? Probably not. Probably the owners just liked the way the bright, frosty green looked with the shiny hardwood floors, blond wood furniture, handsome place settings and stylish little light fixtures. It's also a pretty backdrop for the work of artists and craftsmen that line one wall.

You can get Indian food that's equally good elsewhere in the city, and I can't say that what comes out of Mehek's kitchen is particularly unusual; but the only rival the place has for atmosphere is the Ambassador Dining Room. The Ambassador is a more formal, more romantic and more expensive option for Indian food. Mehek offers a completely different experience: young, lively, cheerful and cheap.

The menu is beautiful -- more a book than a menu, with color photographs and lots of text about Indian culture. As a menu, it's somewhat confusing. Kebabs are a specialty, for instance, but they seem to be only an appetizer. Or not, as we found out from the waiter. In any case, you'll want to order at least one sizzling platter for your table. The kebabs range from homemade cheese cubes on skewers to jumbo shrimp or lamb.

There are other menu mysteries. The Mehek special salad of the day might be grilled peppers on greens, a sprouts salad or one of two classic onion salads. But none is available.

Our waiter tells us the Kashmiri naan, unleavened bread studded with raisins and almonds, is eaten as either an appetizer or dessert, but never as bread with the meal because it's sweet. But he brings it with our meal, and the soft, warm bread is as delicious with the food -- and a lot less sweet -- than mango chutney would have been.

He steers us away from the Mehek Special Fish (Chef Specialty), never quite explaining why, to fish korma, a dish with chunks of swordfish in a creamy sauce made of ground cashews and raisins. He doesn't do so because it's more expensive; it's not.

I'm not sure what my position is on a creamy sweet sauce with swordfish, but the fish is very fresh. This sauce -- and the others we try -- has nuances of spices and fire. This isn't true at every Indian restaurant, where one sauce can taste very much like the next: one-note affairs. The kitchen will also respect your wishes when it comes to heat. Mild means mild, but if you like your dishes as hot as a native of India would, the waiter will believe you.

It's hard to keep the wait staff from recommending the standards here. (Or maybe we just looked like tourists.) The standards, however, are done well. Chicken makhani can be found on any American-Indian restaurant's menu, but how can you not love a dish that's also called butter chicken? The kitchen makes it with nice big chunks of white chicken meat, and the blush-pink sauce is a soothing counterpoint to spicier dishes, like the lamb saagwala (lamb cubes and spinach, with heat that catches up to you after several bites).

A vegetarian appetizer sampler composed of Indian street snacks like samosas (turnovers) and other deep-fried tidbits manages to present fresh and distinct flavors inside their golden crusts. At Mehek, the potato cakes with peas are spiced quite differently than the potato-and-pea-filled samosas. Fiery coriander chutney and a sweeter tamarind chutney add plenty of zip.

Beyond the usual suspects, there is chicken chaat, spicy little bites of tandoori chicken served chilled with onions and tomatoes on a bed of greens. And you will look at chickpeas in a new light if you order the channa masala. They are stewed with tomatoes and onions, but the individual flavors remain distinct; and they are seasoned with enough verve to stand on their own as an entree.

Desserts return to the tried-and-true, like gulab jamin, a sort of dumpling in rose-scented syrup, and tropical ice creams. But there's nothing wrong with the tried-and-true when it's done as well as this pretty little restaurant does it.

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

......................

FOOD *** (3 stars)

SERVICE *** (3 stars)

ATMOSPHERE *** (3 stars)

MEHEK

Address: 811 S. Broadway, Fells Point

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $3-$8; main courses, $8-$18

Call: 410-522-9191

RATINGS / / Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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